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

The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

Babyteeth


Poolside contemplation.

(2019) Drama (IFCEliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis, Michelle Lotters, Sora Wakaki, Renee Billing, Zack Grech, Georgina Symes, Emily Barclay, Eugene Gilfedder, Edward Lau, Charles Grounds, Jack Yabsley, Andrea Demetriades, Ashley Hanak, Quentin Yung, Jaga Yap, Priscilla Doueihy, Shannon Dooley. Directed by Shannon Murphy

The world is full of dying teens, or so the movies would tell us. Invariably, the teens so afflicted are spunky, quirky and more lively than kids destined to live long lives. Rarely do we ever see seriously ill kids who actually act seriously ill, with only an occasional nosebleed or a bloody cough. I wonder what it says about humans in general that we are so eager to kill off our young, figuratively speaking.

In this much-lauded Aussie drama, Milla (Scanlen) seems a normal teen with normal teen angst and normal teen attitude – i.e. her parents don’t understand, all adults are morons and NOBODY GETS ME. Her parents, in her case, are seriously effed up – Dad Henry (Mendelsohn) is a therapist whose response is generally to write a prescription for one drug or another. Some of those drugs go to his wife and Milla’s mom Anna (Davis) who is generally stoned out of her mind on Xanax or Zoloft or some such.

Into Milla’s life comes Moses (Wallace) like a bull in a china shop, quite literally – he slams into her on a train platform, because he wants to feel the train. Within moments of that meeting, he’s hitting her up for cash. He’s homeless, a drug addict and a small-time drug dealer – just the kind of boyfriend any girl would love to bring home to Daddy – and of course, that’s exactly what Milla does.

Milla’s folks are appalled by Moses but even though he robs them, there’s still something charming about him and Milla really likes him. When Milla shows up bald shortly thereafter, we realize that her illness is Serious and Anna’s constant self-medication is because she is having trouble reconciling the prospect that her daughter might not be around much longer, but Moses seems to make her happy and so she and Henry allow Moses to stick around, because just maybe he’s the real tonic that Milla actually needs.

Veteran Aussie TV director Murphy, making her feature film debut, has made a film with graceful texture. To her credit, she rarely allows the film to degenerate into maudlin self-pity, which is an issue with other films of this sort. If it feels a bit padded out, that might be forgiven if what’s onscreen holds our interest. For the most part, it does largely due to an absolutely star-making performance by Scanlen who has shown that she has the chops to be an A-list actress. Her chemistry with Wallace is undeniable.

On the negative side, Murphy chooses to end each chapter abruptly rather than seamlessly transitioning. She just stops the scene, often like shutting a door and moving on to the next room. It’s jarring and would have worked better if she hadn’t used it quite so often. d

There is a lot of meat on the bones here, certainly enough to give the average film buff hours of discussion afterwards if so they choose. For me though, it didn’t quite connect; maybe I’ve seen too many dying teen movies and perhaps it didn’t resonate as much in the middle of a global pandemic. The movie probably deserved a higher grade than I’m giving it, but I can’t bring myself to do it; that wouldn’t be fair to my readers. I will say that some of you will likely really connect with this movie, but for one reason or another, I just didn’t. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO SEE: Scanlen is mesmerizing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long and too disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scanlen previously played sickly teen Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon. AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Ghost of Peter Sellers

The Trip to Greece


A couple of badass comedians walking the mean streets of Greece.

(2020) Comedy (IFC)  Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Timothy Leach, Claire Keenan, Rebecca Johnson, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Kareen Alkabbani, Marta Barrio, Richard Clews, Cordelia Budeja, Harry Tayler, Justin Edwards, Soraya Mahalia Hatner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

While they’re no Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Trip pictures have always been welcome additions to the schedule at our beloved Enzian Theater; in fact, the film was scheduled to play the now-postponed Florida Film Festival this past April.

Like the previous trips to the North of England, Italy and Spain, Coogan and Brydon are traveling through some beautiful countryside, eating amazing meals with incredible vistas. As always, Coogan and Brydon are playing “exaggerated” versions of themselves, and the conceit here is that Coogan is writing a restaurant review piece for a newspaper loosely following the route that Odysseus took from Troy to Ithaca in The Odyssey. Along the way, they trade barbs, try to one-up each other with celebrity impressions and deal with situations going on back home; in Coogan’s case, an ill father and in Brydon’s, a suspicion that his extended absences might be getting to his wife (Johnson).

This version is a little bit darker than the first three; some of the banter between the two men reveal some frustrations between them and the situation with Coogan’s dad – which he keeps from Brydon – clearly wears on him as we see nightmares that clearly have to do with him being away from his father at a critical juncture.

Both men are well into their 50s now (as am I) and mortality is beginning to creep into their consciousness. For the first time, Brydon brings his wife along for a portion of the tour, and Coogan’s feelings about his father’s mortality are clearly not something he wants to face. In the meantime, he boasts whenever he has the opportunity about his awards that he’s won. “What are you most proudest of?” queries Rob. Steve responds, not-so-modestly, “My seven BAFTAs” (a combination of Oscars and Emmys in the UK). Rob says that he’s proudest of his children, to which Steve says “That’s because you don’t have any BAFTAs” to which Rob replies “No, but you have children, eh? Interesting…”

And, yes, there are some great comedy bits with references to Coogan’s BAFTA-nominated role as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, to which the two do a bit as Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, which isn’t quite as funny as it sounds on paper. However, better is the bit with Mich Jagger and Keith Richards which ends with Coogan (who was Jagger) opining that “When Keith Richards laughs, it’s like the last death throes of Muttley” referencing the children’s cartoon.

Basically, this is fairly formulaic but it’s a good formula, although it’s wearing thin. I suspect that if they do stick to their guns and make this the last Trip movie, it would be a good thing as I can see little reason to keep flogging a dead gourmet. However, a part of me can’t help wishing that they find reasons to do more.

REASONS TO SEE: As always, the movie is at its best when Coogan and Brydon are riffing and doing dueling impressions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really too different from the other Trip films.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth and apparently final entry in the Trip series, which are all distillations of longer TV shows.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Green Book

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

True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots

Olympic Dreams


Olympic gold.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Nick Kroll, Alexi Pappas, Gus Kenworthy, Morgan Schild. Directed by Jeremy Teicher

 

Sometimes, less is more.

Armed with a minimal crew and a largely improvised script (that never feels it), Teicher, co-writer Pappas and a small cast were granted extraordinary access to the Olympic village at the 2018 PyeongChang winter games. While the backstage pass is half the fun here, it is not all of it.

Penelope (Pappas, who was an Olympic runner at the 2016 Rio games in real life) is a cross-country skier on the American team who approaches the opening ceremony of the Games with a mixture of childlike wonder and deer-in-the-headlights fear. Her event will be one of the very first of the games so she doesn’t have a whole lot of time to take it all in. She does her best – gets a personal best time, as a matter of fact, but as is sometimes the case, her best isn’t good enough. She finishes out of the medal competition.

She’s left with a whole lot of time and not much to do. On the other hand, Ezra (Kroll) is a volunteer dentist, an Olympic junkie who has waited for this moment for his entire life. He loves chatting with the athletes and sees that Penelope is a bit down in the dumps, so he approaches her. Eventually the two form a friendship and while both are a bit awkward – Penelope’s training precluded any sort of social life, while Ezra is hampered by a fiancée back at home that he is taking an unwilling break from – they circle each other, unsure of what move to make next.

All this takes place amid the pomp and pageantry of the Games and on “dates” in PyeongChang itself. Teicher, who did most of the filming and sound recording himself, manages to capture a kind of rom-com sweetness that transcends the location which is quite a feat. Kroll and Pappas have real chemistry together and we get a real sense of what Penelope is going through, a kind of “What now?” moment that she doesn’t have an easy answer for. She is alone in a crowded room, not possessed of the self-confidence some of the other athletes have, and her isolation is often palpable. She has no friends and makes tearful calls to her coach at home, exclaiming on what a great time she’s having while it’s clear she is hurting.

Ezra, likewise, is finding it harder than he thought. He is not happy with his life and suspects that his fiancée might not be the right woman for him – he loves to travel and she hates leaving the States. Still, he is not a man who likes to take chances – he’s a dentist fer chrissakes – who yearns to step out of the rut he’s in but is unsure if he has it in him to do so.

In a very real sense they are good for each other, but like most real people they are also bad for each other. The two fight – over his inability to take a chance, over her self-centered devotion to her sport – and one wonders what kind of future the two could possibly have. In addition, there’s an age factor – he’s 37, she’s 22 – which isn’t belabored in the film but is clearly on Ezra’s mind.

The ending kind of gets to a point that you think it’s going to go but it doesn’t get there the way you thought it might. You at times want to shake Ezra and tell him “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? KISS THE GIRL, DAMMIT!” and at the same time you want to shake Penelope and tell him “WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU? YOU’RE COMING ON TOO STRONG!!” The script does follow kind of a standard rom-com formula and like I said it doesn’t always go about it in the way you’d expect, but those who love this much-abused genre are going to enjoy this. It’s even appropriate that it came out on Valentine’s Day. Not a bad way to spend a cold night with your honey, in front of a TV set with a warm blanket, hot cocoa and this film. There is nothing wrong with having the cockles of your heart warmed, after all.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a lot of charm here.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is also a few rom-com tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film that was allowed to shoot in the Olympic village during an Olympic games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cutting Edge
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beautiful Boy

Official Secrets


The reflection in liberty is sometimes the courage of a single person.

(2019) Biographical Drama (IFC) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Grieg, John Heffernan, Clive Francis, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Katherine Kelly, Conleth Hill, Hattie Morahan, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin, Peter Guinness, Jeremy Northam, Hanako Footman Directed by Gavin Hood

 

There is a fundamental question when you hold a position within a government and that is this: do you work for the government, or for the people it represents? Not all of those who toil in government positions understand the distinction.

Katherine Gun (Knightley) works as a Mandarin translator for GCHQ – essentially the British version of the NSA – interpreting diplomatic and military communiques and writing reports. It’s a low-level job requiring high security clearance. At night, she goes home and watches the telly with her Turkish immigrant husband Yasar (Bakri) and shouting at the television as she watches American officials making speeches justifying their intent to go to war with Iraq and knowing that nothing that they’re saying is supported by fact.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back, however, is an NSA memo that is distributed to the GCHQ requesting information on six UN delegates on the UN Security Council who are standing in the way of that body approving the American invasion of Iraq. This is patently illegal by British law, but because this is a classified document, it is protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1989, a Thatcher-era British law that broadens what can and can’t be leaked to the press.

Understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing, Gun gives a copy of the memo to an anti-war activist who in turn forwards it to the offices of the Observer, an English newspaper. The Observer, like much of the conservative British press, had officially supported war (despite the evidence that the overwhelming majority of the UK was against it). While gung-ho activist reporter Ed Vullamy (Ifans),  a seething mass of liberal anger wants to rush this bombshell to press, calmer heads like foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont (Goode) want to first verify that the document  and make sure it’s authentic – you know, do the job the press is actually supposed to do.

That job falls to reporter Martin Bright (Smith) who diligently looks into the authorship of the memo. Eventually, the story goes to press but despite the outrage, the United States invades without a U.N. resolution and nearly 20 years later we’re still there.

Of course, all hell breaks loose at the GCHQ and the various people who work there who had access to the memo are interrogated. Not wanting to see her colleagues subjected to a witch hunt, Gun confesses. She is eventually arrested and after a year, charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. On the advice of Bright (relayed through their mutual friend), Gun retains Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), founder of the activist legal group Liberty that defends British civil rights (think of a smaller scale ACLU). The government, seeking to make an example of Gun, undertake to harass and in general make her life miserable even before the charges can be filed. In the meantime, she is terrified that her husband will be deported.

This is a story on the level of that of Valerie Plame and Edward Snowden, of those who chose conscience over safety. Gun is most certainly a liberal hero and is treated as such by the film and South African director Gavin Hood, who has made two other films (Redacted and Eye in the Sky) about the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The film has a crackerjack cast led by Knightley, who has in recent years done a lot of period work. I suppose this is also a bit of a period piece but at least this one is set after the Regency Era. She plays Gun as an impulsive and passionate woman who hadn’t looked to become a spy but became one anyway. When faced with a moral dilemma, she responded with the kind of courage that is rare. Understanding that a prison sentence is inevitable as would be massive personal consequences, would any of us have stood for what we felt was right? As much as I would like to think I would, I suspect that I – like most people – would opt for what is convenient. Knightley gives Gun a kind of vulnerability that makes her relatable as she second-guesses her decision as it becomes terrifyingly clear the ramifications of what she has done to her marriage and standing. Gun is not always heroic here and that makes the movie stronger.

Smith and Ifans, as reporters of opposing demeanors, both do impressive work which again, considering how strong this cast is, can be no easy feat. Hood, who co-wrote the film, tends to get bogged down in legal details during the third act and the nearly two hour movie begins to drag at that point. It is a bit exhausting by that point. Still, in an era where governments seem to be marching ever alarmingly to the right, it behooves us to remember how important it is for people of conscience to stand up and say “this is wrong,” even if it doesn’t make a difference immediately. In the long run, it makes every difference.

REASONS TO SEE: A really top-notch cast with particularly impressive performances by Knightley, Ifans and Smith.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little bit too long and gets bogged down in legal details.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In real life, Gun’s husband was deported to Turkey where he now lives along with Gun and their young daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liam Gallagher: As It Was

The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

An Acceptable Loss


Tika Sumpter speaks truth to power.

(2018) Thriller (IFC) Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, David Eisenberg, Alysia Reiner, Rex Linn, Carmen Roman, Henry Godinez, Tim Hopper, Rashaad Hall, Troy West, José Antonio Garcia, Peggy Roeder, Jin You, Patrick Mulvey, Jack Ball, Bella Wholey, Brittany Baker. Directed by Joe Chappelle

 

In this modern age, the government has thorny problems to wrestle with. How to deal with a threat which defies national boundaries but is just as deadly to its citizens as an attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. How does a nation react to terrorism without becoming terrorists themselves?

Libby Lamm (Sumpter) is part of an administration that had to face that question but her boss Vice-President Rachel Burke (Curtis) had no qualms about the answer. It has made Libby a social pariah, as her recommendation to the President (Linn) in her capacity as a security adviser led to a tragedy of 9-11 proportions. Libby is now in the academic sector, teaching an inflammatory political science course amid campus protests and drunken confrontations by self-righteous faculty members demanding to know how many people she killed.

Libby has chosen to write a book on her experiences, a book that the new regime, now led by the former Vice-President, desperately wants to see quashed. Libby, the daughter of a respected newspaper editor (Peters), is feeling a tremendous load of guilt and needs to write this book and have people read it in order to make some sort of emotional catharsis for herself. President Burke has sent oily Chief of Staff Adrian (Hephner), not coincidentally an ex-lover of Libby’s, to reason with her and bring her back into the fold but Libby is having none of it.

In the meantime creepy grad student Martin (Tavassoli) is breaking into Libby’s home and planting cameras in addition to stalking her in a way that says “terrorist” although in one of a series of plot twists we see that he’s much too academic for mere violence. In fact this whole movie is an endless series of plot twists, signifying nothing.

As potboilers go this one has its moments, particularly when Curtis is onscreen. There is an interesting concept in that Sumpter’s character is essentially a young Condoleezza Rice crossed with Jack Ryan which ought to be a delight for conservative moviegoers except that the rest of the film is essentially an indictment of conservative policies in the middle east which will no doubt get some eyes to rolling.

Chappelle and cinematographer Petra Korner seem to have made the conscious decision to overexpose the film, giving everything a nearly colorless, washed-out look. The effect is like watching a movie with your eyes dilated. I’m not so sure what prompted the look but it gets annoying after a while.

For the most part the acting is solid with Curtis setting the bar higher for everyone. She’s truly exceptional here, steely and completely sure of herself. She is confident in her beliefs and is quite frankly willing to do anything to support them and I do mean anything. She’s a cross between Dick Cheyney and…well, Dick Cheyney without the annoying heart condition. Her absolute certainty in her position puts Rachel above any moral concerns; it allows her to sleep at night knowing that anything done in service to her country is intrinsically the right thing to do, regardless of he consequences. It does bother me however that while Libby is considered a pariah as architect of the policy, the chief proponent of it (Burke) was elected President. The two don’t seem to add up logically.

The film suffers from a fairly bland script that utilizes a whole lot of dramatic reveals that don’t deserve the fanfare they’re given. The movie could have gone two ways – it could have been a standard direct-to-home video mindless thriller or it could have been a serious drama about how those in the corridors of power cope with their decisions when their decisions cost lives. Chappelle opts to go both routes which was too bad; the second half of the film which was the standard thriller is almost disappointing compared to the first half, the political drama which had a lot more potential. That’s a movie I really would have liked to see had they continued down that route.

REASONS TO GO: The film is a reasonably well-constructed thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The colors are washed out throughout, looking like a drab attempt at noir or a bad day at the development lab..
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappelle also directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curtis starred in four films in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Adult Life Skills