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

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

Little Fish


When you’re losing everything, hold on to what you have tightly.

(2020) Romance (IFCOlivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo, David Lennon, Mackenzie Caldwell, Ross Wirtanen, Heather Decksheimer, Natalie Smith, Ronald Robinson, Wyatt Cameron, Morgana Wyllie, Monique Phillips, Paul Almeida, Toby Hargrave, Albert Nicholas, Chris Shields, Jeff Sanca, Naomi King, Darius Willis, Emily Stott, Samantha Spear. Directed by Chad Hartigan

 

What makes us who we are? There are those who will argue (convincingly) that it is our experiences, our memories. Everything in our lives is filtered through them. The loss of memory is a kind of death; the loss of the essence of who we are, dying away in a fog of forgetfulness.

A pandemic has swept the world – no, not that one – of a disease called NIA: neuroinflammatory affliction. Think of it as a kind of supercharged Alzheimer’s; it affects the old and the young, causing memories to disappear; sometimes all at once, other times gradually. Emma (Cooke), a British ex-pat working as a veterinarian in Seattle, is fully aware of the ramifications of the disease. She is married to Jude (O’Connell), a photographer. She is trying to document everything about their relationship in the case that one or both of them are afflicted by it.

It has already hit close to home. Musician friend Ben (Castillo) has contracted the virus and is desperately racing to get his songs recorded before he forgets them or how to play at all. He is also beginning to forget his wife Samantha (Soko) which is terrifying to Emma. It becomes all the more terrifying when both her mother and Jude get NIA and while Emma can do nothing for her mother, she desperately tries everything to save her husband’s memory before she becomes just another face in the crowd to him.

This is a very poignant film that not only spotlights the true horror of diseases like Alzheimer’s but underscores the disappearance of thousands due to the pandemic we’re all experiencing. Hartigan utilizes the overcast Seattle weather and the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest to great effect. The movie is narrated by Emma as a series of journal entries in her quest to keep the relationship alive in Jack’s fading memory; the futility of her effort makes the movie all the more affecting.

Much of the reason the film works is the obvious chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell’ the intimacies of little moments – a touch here, a glance there, a caress across the back of the head – feel authentic and serve to remind us that true love is not a series of grand gestures, but of small ones. Yes, there are some Hollywood moves like kisses while holding sparklers on the fourth of July, piggyback rides and other horseplay but because the feeling between Cooke and O’Connell comes off so genuinely it doesn’t feel as forced as it might ordinarily.

We get very little context on how the disease is affecting the world at large. We get a sense that people are forgetting how to drive their boats and cars, abandoning them and walking (or swimming) back home. Most air travel has been banned because of the possibility that a pilot might forget how to fly a plane mid-flight. We don’t see how that would then affect supply chains, of how civilization itself would start to come to a screeching halt. Other than a scene at a clinic where people are signing up for an experimental treatment that could potentially be a cure, we don’t see the panic something like this would cause. If people aren’t willing to wear a simple cloth mask, how would they react to something like NIA?

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, this might hit a little too close to home. Those with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia may also find this troubling. For all others, the bittersweet quality might be the perfect tonic for some Valentine’s Day snuggling in front of the TV or movie screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A heartbreaking allegory. Terrific chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell. Achingly bittersweet.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending seems a bit drawn out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set during a pandemic, the movie was completed before COVID-19 was a news item.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YoTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Woman in Motion

Farewell Amor


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee, Nana Mensah, Marcus Scribner, Brandon Lamar, Joy Batra, Francisco Burgos, Mariam C. Chemmoss, Virginia Hastings, Majah Hype, Joel Michaely, Chrisanthos Petsilas, Howie Sheard, Terrence Shingler, Rayshawn Richardson, Imani Lewis, Kristen Maxwell. Directed by Ekwa Msangi

 

Often we don’t consider the human cost of what goes on in those news snippets on CNN. You know the sort; some correspondent in a utility vest in some country that is at war with itself talking about this militia group or that government army. Caught in the middle are millions of civilians, who often have to flee their war-torn countries to survive. Often, that means families being separated, sometimes for unconscionably long periods.

Walter (Mwine) left the civil war in Angola for the United States, leaving his wife Esther (Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Lawson) – the daughter he barely knew – to try and forge a good life for his family. But seventeen long years passed as the paperwork for their emigration slowly churned through the system. When at last they were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport, they were literally strangers to one another, despite Esther’s exclaimed “Amor!” (the French word for love which can often be taken as “My love”) when first they meet.

They have all changed. Sylvia misses her friends in Dar es Salaam where she and her mother fled to. She isn’t sure how she fits in here in Brooklyn. There is a guy, DJ (Scribner) in her class who thinks she’s amazing. He watches her dancing in the street – she loves to dance – and knows she’s a natural for the high school step dancing team, but she’s not so sure.

Esther has found religion and not just Christianity but a rigid, evangelical Christianity that begins to show through. She disapproves of the decadence in America and her daughter’s desire to be a dancer? “I refused to lose my daughter to America!” she shouts, forbidding her daughter from joining the dance team or to do any sort of activity other than to attend church. It is driving a wedge between Esther and Walter.

As for Walter, he hasn’t been a saint over the past 17 years. While Esther makes friends with a spirited neighbor (Lee), Walter misses the woman (Mensah) who lived with him and was his lover while Esther was in Africa. Esther discovers what Walter had been up to, and is trying to reconcile the old Walter with the new. Will this family survive being reunited?

First-time feature filmmaker Msangi based this on a short film she did several years ago, and she shows herself to be a talent to be reckoned with. This is a film about real people, dealing with real issues. She clearly has an affection for Brooklyn, because she portrays it as a truly wonderful place. She also coaxes some truly affecting performances out of all of her cast members. I can’t recall a movie this year in which the cast was as flawless as this one.

The movie is vibrant, alive with the love of music and dance that Walter and Sylvia (and to a lesser extent, Esther) share. There is also a melancholy of people struggling to figure out how they fit in, where the fit in and feeling alone in a crowd. I think we’ve all gone through that at some point or another, making the movie eminently relatable on a personal level.

Msangi wants us to see the movie from the viewpoint of all three characters, so she divides the movie into three different chapters in which each character is basically the lead of their own chapter. Yes, that does give us an insight into all three of the family members we might not have otherwise had, but it is a little bit of a misstep; we spend the movie going over the same events through the points of view of three different characters and although everyone’s viewpoint is different, it still feels like we’re watching a rerun to a certain extent. I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently to achieve the same aim; I just know that this didn’t work as well as I think she intended.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and essential movie, for sure one that you won’t want to miss. Not only does it give us an insight into the refugee problem, it gives us insight into family dynamics that is different than what we’re used to. I can’t praise this movie enough.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an authenticity here that’s hard to achieve. The music is amazing. Strong performances top to bottom.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Rashomon effect gives us a sense like we’re watching the same movie over and over and over again – because we are.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The United States hosts more international migrants than any other country on Earth, about 19% of the total world’s population.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First They Killed My Father
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

Dear Santa (2020)


We need a little Christmas right this very minute.

(2020) Documentary (IFCDamion DiGrazia, Orlando Mendez, Andrew Wallace, Gail Branham. Directed by Dana Nachman

More than ever this year, we need Christmas. Many folks I know put their decorations up early, and for once I can’t blame them. It has been a year with a global pandemic, a contentious American election that showed just how deeply divided this country is, of mistrust sowed for institutions once thought to be solid and sound, and overall of anger, vitriol and cruelty expressed online. We could all use a break.

One of the institutions that has taken a beating this year has been the United States Post Office as what was once a trusted, apolitical institution became deeply politicized. It is therefore mete that we also look at something the USPS got right: Operation Santa. This effort, started back in 1912, began as postal workers started opening letters to Santa and gradually grew. Efforts were made to help children get the presents they wanted. It has expanded massively until this year, when for the first time ever – due to the pandemic – it has become available everywhere in the United States.

Volunteer elves help Santa by opening letters of children, and seeing which children can be given the Christmas gift of their dreams. Oftentimes, folks like you and I are able to adopt entire families, making their Christmas day bright and joyful. The stories are often poignant, such as an older sister who wants nothing for herself but wants to get a puppy for her siblings, or the volunteer elf who had thought not to participate last year because he was burned out suddenly yanked back in by a letter from a child who only wanted to be able to accept that he was gay. Some of the letters are pure commercial greed, but many will tug at your heartstrings and make your cheeks a little moist and not from the eggnog you spilled, either.

You might think that a film like this might cause a reduction in belief of Santa Claus, but that isn’t the case; the way the film is constructed all those who believe will not be dissuaded. It’s important that the belief not be tampered with; it is, after all, a particularly precious part of childhood and in a year in which childhood innocence has taken some body blows, it is particularly important that we respect that now.

The final reel of Dear Santa may be the best moments you spend watching a movie this year; in fact, it might be the best moments you spend this year period. There’s no doubt that all of us – without exception, regardless of political affiliation – need something good, something inspirational after a year that has been anything but. It is wonderful to see people like these elves care enough to do something completely selfless. Yes, the film is chock full of adorable kids saying adorable things, but this is one of those rare instances in which the adults actually steal the show from the kids. Each one of those volunteer elves deserves admiration.

I hope everyone gets to see this movie. Heaven knows we all need it. If it moves you to join in and adopt a letter yourself, the web address is posted at the end of the film, or if you don’t want to wait you can click here and find out more information about Operation Santa.

Most documentaries are geared towards bringing our attention to issues and problems from climate change to the opioid crisis to rape culture to cultural genocide to corruption in the highest corridors of power, and well they should – we need to be informed. It is therefore rare that a documentary can leave you feeling good, and energized and proud to be a human being. This one does all that.

REASONS TO SEE: Does the soul a world of good to see people who still care for others. Occasionally inspirational, occasionally heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Children first started writing letters to Santa more than 150 years ago.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Truth is the Only Client

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

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


Let them eat cake.

(2020) Documentary (IFCYoram Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong, Sam Bompas, Ghaya Oliveira, Deborah Krohn, Dominique Ansel, Limar Tomer, Sruly Lazarus, Sami Tamimi. Directed by Laura Gabbert

 

It is somewhat apocryphal that Marie Antoinette, when informed that the people of Paris could not afford to buy bread, retorted “then let them eat cake.” It turns out she never actually said that, but it seemed to encapsulate the attitude the French nobility had at the time for the multitude of Parisians and French citizens elsewhere in France who were literally starving while they ate fabulous banquets in a palace noted for its ostentatious decadence.

When the Metropolitan Museum of New York brought artifacts from the French palace for an exhibition called “Visitors to Versailles” in 2018, they decided to publicize the exhibition, as they often do, with a preview dinner. They contacted world-renowned pastry chef and cookbook author Yoram Ottolenghi to create a menu of delicacies that would be fit for the table of the Sun King.

In true “go big or go home” fashion, he recruited some of the world’s most distinguished pâtissiers to create an experience not seen in all likelihood since Versailles saw its last royal resident; French-American Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut, who determined to reinterpret pastries that might have been served at the French court;  Janice Wong from Singapore, known for her “edible art,” who decided to make an edible recreation of the gardens at Versailles; the British team of Bompas and Parr, known for the decadent gelatin deserts that move almost of their own accord; Tunisian chocolatier Ghaya Oliveira of New York’s exclusive Restaurant Daniel, and Ukrainian cake maker Dinara Kasko, who uses her training as an architect to print 3D molds that create cakes that are architectural wonders.

The deserts these masters make are truly spectacular and are likely to make even the most jaded foodie go ooh and ahh with wonder. Oddly enough, Ottolenghi serves as a curator and creates nothing of his own for the event, although curiously we see him sampling potential deserts for his London eatery at one time. As food porn goes, this is pretty exquisite stuff. I wish that Gabbert spent more time showing us how these deserts were crafted; as for Bompas and Parr (we never hear from poor Parr nor is he identified except in passing) we see their deserts but don’t have a clue how they are made. I get that this wasn’t meant to be a cooking show, but some background would have been nice.

But there is an odd undercurrent here. Gabbert spends a good deal of the surprisingly short run time of 75 minutes talking about the history of Versailles and what it meant in terms of class divisions, but there doesn’t seem to be much irony in these world class pastry makers creating exquisite treats for a clientele of wealthy New York museum patrons in an era where the income equality issue is quite possibly the worst it has ever been in American history, and in a year where the pandemic has caused an economic downturn that is just inches away from being a second Depression. You end up tasting the irony rather than the deserts, which in all honesty set the mouth to watering, but as is the case with most upscale events, leave us on the outside looking in.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the creations here are amazing. A wonderful treat for foodies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the tone-deaf side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ottolenghi was raised in Jerusalem and is Jewish; Tamimi, his business partner, is Palestinian.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Night
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Glorias

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