Catch the Fair One


Kali Reis has the intensity of a caged lion ready to spring.

(2021) Crime Drama (IFC) Kali Reis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Chu, Michael Drayer, Kimberly Guerrero, Lisa Emery, Kevin Dunn, Jonathan Kowalsky, Gerald Webb, Isabelle Chester, Shelly Vincent, Matt Godfrey, Emmett Printup, Jordan Smith, Rae Anna Gott, Wesley Leung, Aaron Kriegler, Sam Seward, Christine Lauer, Sheri Fairchild, Marcus, Elizabeth Manente, Mainaku Borrero. Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka

It is a dirty little secret in modern America that indigenous women are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery at an inordinate rate. Advocacy groups report that about 90% of those taken end up murdered once their “purpose” has been served.

Kaylee “KO” Uppashaw (Reis, a boxing champion making her acting debut) prepares for a championship fight with her trainer, Brick (Vincent, also a fighter), going through the pre-fight rituals of getting taped up, having her gloves slipped on, and waiting in the wings for her introduction. She wakes up in a squalid women’s shelter. Was the championship fight a dream or a memory? We’re never sure which, but likely the former.

Kaylee works as a waitress in a diner. She has fallen into such a state where she takes uneaten food off the plates of her customers and brings it home to eat. She sleeps with a razor blade secreted in her mouth, to defend herself if she needs to protect her possesions or her life. She has fallen far from the spotlight she once occupied, and perhaps understandably so; her kid sister Weeta (Borrero) disappeared after walking home alone after visiting Kaylee who was training at her gym (Kaylee wanted to stay a little longer and work; Weeta needed to get back home). Kaylee’s guilt led to estrangement from her mother (Guerrero), the end of her boxing career, and a descent into substance abuse.

The authorities were of little help. Desperate to find her sister and perhaps find redemption, she decides to go looking for her on her own. Researching the local sex trade (the police were able to discover that Weeta was sold into a sex trafficking ring) she discovers a pair of pimps who specialize in pairing up native American women with clients who wanted them. Kaylee decides to allow herself to get into their stable. From then on, things don’t go exactly as she plans.

Basically, the second half of the movie changes tone and focus, going from an intense, emotional, gut-wrenching drama into a fairly typical action film of the revenge genre. While the fight scenes are outstanding (as you’d expect they would be), the change is jarring and makes it feel like two completely different movies were spliced together.

Reis, who hasn’t acted professionally prior to this, is a revelation. She brings a quiet intensity to her role as Kaylee. Kaylee doesn’t say a whole lot; she does her talking with her fists, her eyes and her body language. There is a confrontation with her mother early on in the movie, where she unloads a little bit: “You have a living daughter right here in front of you,” she cries as her mother, who runs a support group for families with missing children, turns to stone. It’s powerful and I wish there had been more scenes like this, showing the devastating effect Weeta’s disappearance had on her family.

This is not the kind of film you want when you’re looking for a pick-me-up; it’s dark, gritty and suffused with an air of impending tragedy. While Kaylee is hopeful that she’ll reunite with her sister, the odds are stacked against her. The ride is a bumpy one, and at times you’ll be tempted to turn away, especially at some of the more wrenching moments. This isn’t always an easy film to watch, but there’s some important material here about a problem that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. When a character with casual cruelty tells Kaylee “Nobody is looking (for her sister) because nobody cares,” he is stating the reality of the situation overall. That’s a fact that needs changing.

REASONS TO SEE: Reis shows a great deal of grit and intensity as a performer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Becomes more of a revenge action thriller in the second half, a move that doesn’t blend well with the dramatic first half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reis was the first person of mixed Native American heritage to win a boxing title. Like her character in the movie, she is of Native American and Cape Verdean descent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trade
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dumbo (2019)

Benedetta


Nobody can say that Benedetta ain’t getting nun.

(2021) Biographical Drama (IFC) Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson, Olivier Rabourdin, Louise Cheveliotte, Hervé Pierre, Clotilde Courau, David Clavel, Guillaine Londez, Gaëlle Jeantet, Justine Bachelet, Lauriane Riquet, Elena Plonka, Héloise Bresc, Jonathan Couzinié, Vinciane Millereau, Erwan Ribard, Sophie Breyer. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

Some movies test your intellect. Others test your emotional tolerance. Some test your endurance. Others test your beliefs. Some test your credulity, while some test your patience. The latest from celebrated Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Soldier of Orange, Robocop, Total Recall and infamously, Showgirls, tests your permissiveness.

Benedetta Carlini (Efira) is a young woman, the daughter of a well-to-do Italian merchant (Clavel) in the city of Pescia in 17th century Tuscany. She is being delivered to the Theatine convent under the supervision of the Abbess Felicita (Rampling). Benedetta is a devout young woman who has visions of being a Bride of Christ – not just in the sense of being a nun, but an actual bride of actual Jesus, in every sense of the term.

She is given a new novice to mentor, Sister Bartolomea (Patakia), a peasant girl who is fleeing an abusive father who has taken to using her as a substitute wife following the death of her mother. Bartolomea is an earthy, uninhibited sort that Benedetta is immediately drawn to. As Benedetta begins showing signs of stigmata and her visions grow more vivid, the skeptical abbess is sure that her charge is trying to game the system for her own gain, while the local papal nuncio (Lambert) is using the girl’s growing notoriety for his own purposes. In the meantime, Benedetta is discovering her own sexuality and Bartolomea is only too happy to help her explore it.

There is a lot of sexual activity – a lot – even for a French film. A French film…about an Italian nun…directed by a Dutchman. Ah, the European Union! S’anyway, Verhoeven has a reputation for not being overly awed by boundaries, and has had no problem with extreme violence, kinky sex or disturbing imagery in any of his films and he delivers all three here. In some ways, it’s nearly as entertaining to read the reviews of the film. It’s amazing how prudish some critics are; you can feel the pearls being clutched in a death grip as some decry the amount of lesbian sex scenes in the movie. Keep in mind that the movie is based upon Judith C. Brown’s biography of Carlini Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The real Carlini was at one time one of the most powerful women in her order; later she was excoriated for her sexuality and her affair with Bartolomea, while other priests and male clergy routinely had mistresses despite their vow of chastity. The men were rarely persecuted for it but Benedetta certainly was, but refused to meekly accept the injustice. She was a feminist long before feminism was a thing.

But Verhoeven seems to be toning down that aspect of her story. Those who appreciate the proverbial “girl-on-girl action” will find plenty to keep them sated. However, some reviewers compare this film to porn – apparently they don’t get out on the Internet much. Highly sexual this may be, but porn this is not.

Efira has been coming on as a powerful actress over the last few years, and this performance does nothing to stem her momentum. She seems destined to become a huge star in Europe (she’s actually Belgian, not French) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood started reaching out to her agent sooner rather than later. She captures not only the devoutness of the character, but the harder edges as well – we are left to wonder if the stigmata is a divine manifestation, or the work of Benedetta’s own ambition – and she makes the character enigmatic enough to be interest, but real enough to be relatable.

Verhoeven does a marvelous job of setting the period, from the clothes to the sets to the historical accuracy – a plague was raging through Italy at the time this was going on, and Verhoeven doesn’t mind showing the horrors of that plague. As a bit of a counterpart, former Art of Noise keyboardist Anne Dudley – who has become a much-sought-after film composer – gives us a beautiful, haunting score.

Basically, if you’re offended by onscreen depictions of sex – particularly between two women – this is definitely not the movie for you. But don’t for a moment think that just because Verhoeven is generous with the nookie doesn’t mean that is all there is to the film. There is also commentary on religion, ennui and attitudes towards women in general and female sexuality in particular. This isn’t Verhoeven’s best work but it is up there, which considering the breadth of his career is really saying something.

REASONS TO SEE: Really captures the period. The score is gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prudish or sensitive might end up offended.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of nudity and sex, as well as some violence, profanity, disturbing images and material that might offend the devout.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the second French-language film for Verhoeven after Elle (2016).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philomena
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe

The Nowhere Inn


St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein don’t always see eye-to-eye.

(2021) Musical Dramedy (IFC) St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Michael Bofshever, John Aylward, Cass Bugge, Tema Sall, Erica Acevedo, Ezra Buzzington, Rya Kilstedt, Nancy Daly, Gabriela Flores, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquillino, Drew Connick, Asha Dee, Robert Miano, Shae D’lyn, Linda Carola, Steve Rankin, David Shorr, Becky Poole, Rachel Rosenbloom, Kaitlin Huwe. Directed by Bill Benz

 

If you haven’t heard of the indie singer-songwriter St. Vincent, shame on you. She is one of the best in the world at what she does, and while she may not be the household name that, say, Arianna Grande is, she certainly has the talent to not only move the soul but to leave a mark on music itself.

This is presented as a documentary that went South and was never completed. What it actually is can be classified as a parody of rock documentaries that seamlessly meshes the old VH1 Behind the Music series with a heaping helping of farcical self-deprecation. Think of it as what This is Spinal Tap would have been like if directed by Wes Anderson.

Grammy-winning indie rock chanteuse St. Vincent (the stage name of Annie Clark, once a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band) is on tour for her 2017 album Masseducation. We first meet her in a stretch limo, motoring through the California desert with a driver (Buzzington) who has no idea who she is. We ae aware by that point that the movie we’re about to see (which was intended to be a concert movie) was never completed.

Long-time BFF Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for Sleater-Kinney but probably as well-known these days for co-creating Portlandia, had been Clark’s choice to make the movie. However, when she tries to differentiate between the striking, seductive onstage persona of St. Vincent and the offstage persona of Annie Clark, it turns out that Annie Clark is actually, well, pretty boring.

As attempts to make Clark look more interesting offstage continue to meet with resistance, eventually hands are thrown up and she decides to embrace her St. Vincent persona offstage, and we get to see some diva-esque behavior. Clark’s behavior becomes more bizarre and off-putting. She is cold and downright rude to Brownstein whose father (Bofshever) is undergoing chemo for cancer, and whose survival chances aren’t encouraging, although he is exceedingly proud of his daughter’s latest project which, considering her accomplishments, seems a little strange.

But then, that seems to be this movie’s calling card. It is decidedly meta – most of the roles are played by actors, and those playing themselves are playing fictional versions. At least, I hope so.

There are plenty of cringeworthy moments here, as Brownstein and Clark (who co-wrote the script) seem to be going for humor that is hellbent on making the viewer uncomfortable. This might well be their revenge for the effects on their lives that being in the spotlight have had. Or just a smartass commentary on what documentaries about the life tend to portray.

There are short snippets of St. Vincent performing in concert, or singing acoustic songs; certainly not enough to make her fans happy, but enough to entice non-fans to check out her catalogue – as well they should. She is a marvelous singer and songwriter, and she has some amazing songs on her resume. However, keep in mind that as much as this is a movie starring St. Vincent, this isn’t a movie about her, not in a real sense.

Rather, this is a movie about what St. Vincent could become if she were to allow it to happen. I imagine it’s not easy to restrain one’s ego when one exists in an industry that on the one hand tends to stroke the egos of its star performers while at the same time doing everything in its power to crush them. It’s an odd dichotomy that makes the reason that rock stars have a tendency to self-medicate somewhat understandable.

I will say that this movie isn’t for everybody. At times the film feels a little bit scattershot, like a bunch of scenes in search of a unifying theme. It is a little bit out there and requires that you be patient and wait for it to make its point and once it does, understand that it will leave the interpretation of that point (or those points) entirely up to you. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed, in other words. But speaking for myself only, I find movies like that to be more challenging, and more rewarding in the end. I’m betting that you will, too.

REASONS TO SEE: Different and interesting. Pokes fun at rock docs and music stardom in general.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattered in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: St. Vincent was at one time a member of the Polyphonic Spree (“Light and Day”).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTubeCRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is Spinal Tap
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Enemies of the State


An all-American family? Or victims of a government conspiracy?

(2020) Documentary (IFC) Paul DeHart, Joel Widman, Christopher Clark, James Donahower, Leann DeHart, Lillian Tekle, Adrian Humphreys, Gabriela Coleman, Tor Ekeland, Ralph Nichols, Carrie Daughtrey. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

 
We have come into an era where, as Leann DeHart puts it in this film, truth does not matter. We are all quick to believe what we’re going to believe anyway, whether informed through tribal affiliations or long-held beliefs. Either way, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

On the surface, the DeHart family is one you’d find just about anywhere, USA. Father Paul is a pastor and ex-military; his wife Leann is also formerly in the military and their precocious son Matt was in the National Guard. Like many kids his age, he was into computers in a big way and his technical skills got him top secret clearance.

But Matt had grown to admire hacktivist groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks. His parents knew nothing about what he was up to until the FBI came knocking at their door with a warrant. Matt said that the government was out to keep him from whistleblowing about crimes and misdemeanors the government was routinely committing on US soil, and painted himself out to be cut in the mold of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

But the government insisted that wasn’t what was happening at all; Matt was accused of being a sexual predator and creating child porn. For Paul and Leann, this is absolutely preposterous and proof in their eyes that their son is telling the truth – the government is setting him up and using these heinous charges as a diversion. Matt further claims that the FBI is torturing him while in their custody. With nobody to turn to, and determined to keep Matt out of the hands of a government that they feel sure will kill their son once he is in custody, the DeHarts get in their car and drive to Canada where they apply for asylum.

This all sounds very convoluted – and it is – but then all the best mysteries are, aren’t they? Sonia Kennebeck’s second feature is very much set up like a Robert Ludlum spy thriller and relies heavily on dramatic recreations of certain events (in the case of the Canadian immigration hearing that the DeHarts were involved with, utilizing actual audio from the proceeding) and talking head interviews with family, friends, law enforcement and one journalist who is certainly on Team Matt.

But the final third of the movie has some jaw-dropping revelations in it. It’s just a shame the first two thirds of the film are so slow-moving that less disciplined viewers may give up on the film before they get to the good part, and the good part is definitely worth getting to. At times, Kennebeck seems to be delivering a screed about the state of the truth in an age where it is so easy to lie, and it takes a good while for us to get to that truth, but any journey that ends up at the truth is one well worth taking.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a bit of a Robert Ludlum-esque feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be too densely packed, although it does improve in the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Documentary filmmaker legend Erroll Morris is an executive producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Steal Secrets
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Never Gonna Snow Again

Werewolves Within


Ranger Finn doesn’t axe for much.

(2021) Horror Comedy (IFC) Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Michael Chernus, Catherine Curtin, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillén, Rebecca Henderson, Cheyenne Jackson, Michaela Watkins, Glenn Fleshler, Patrick M. Walsh Jr., Anni Krueger. Directed by Josh Ruben

 

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that can make for an enjoyable movie. A group of people, trapped by a snowstorm, with a remorseless killer among them. Who’s going to survive? And which one is the killer? And is that killer a werewolf?

The town of Beaverfield, Vermont is known for maple syrup, and little else. Forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Richardson) has been sent there to take over the job for the local national forest, and believe me, it’s no promotion. He is naïve to an almost epic degree, not realizing that his girlfriend Charlotte (Krueger) has dumped him He is, however, fortunate enough to meet the town postal worker, Cecily (Vayntrub) early on. She knows all the secrets of the quirky townspeople; the genial innkeeper Jeanine (Curtin) whose husband has apparently run off with a waitress, which has left her mumbling to herself; the power tech couple Devon (Jackson) and Joaquim (Guillén) who have opened up a yoga studio in a town that is disinterested in it; the conservatives Pete (Chernus) and Trisha (Watkins); gas station-owning rednecks Marcus (Basil) and Sarah (Burns); reclusive ecologist Dr. Ellis (Henderson) who is opposing the building of a natural gas pipe line by Sam Parker (Duvall) which has divided the town into opposing camps, and then there’s the trapper Emerson (Fleshler) who has a sign “Trespass and Die” on his property which is sincerely meant. He basically hates anything walking on two legs and a lot of things on four legs. Don’t get me started on things on more legs than that.

When a vicious snowstorm hits effectively sealing off the town from any outside help, all of the generators are sabotaged with what appear to be massive claw marks left behind, although a diesel-stained knife may have been used in the destruction. When townspeople start turning up murdered (including Jeanine’s missing husband), Dr. Ellis comes up with a startling declaration – the culprit is a werewolf.

The movie’s cast is probably not well-known but they do sterling work. Best of them is Richardson, a Veep alumnus who reminded me strongly of Saturday Night Live standout Kenan Thompson. Vayntrub, best-known for her long running AT&T commercials as well as a stint on This Is Us, also scores points as the perky postal worker with a touch of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to her DNA.

While you’d never know this was a video game adaptation unless you are conversant with some of the Virtual Reality games available for Oculus Rift, the movie gets points for atmosphere as well. The humor is for the most part pretty on target, although a few bits fall flat. There is some social commentary with the town’s divide along party lines mirroring that of the rest of the country. Cecily’s love for kombucha will likely date the movie a bit though.

The movie has some blood, but isn’t gory enough to make sensitive sorts recoil. All in all, this is one of those horror movies that just about anyone can watch and have a great time, even those who aren’t fond of horror.

While the movie is now playing on a limited release basis, it will be expanding to VOD starting next Friday July 2nd. Check your favorite streaming platform or on-demand provider for prices and availability.

REASONS TO SEE: Richardson reminds me a bit of SNL’s Kenan Thompson. The humor mostly works.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overdoes the quirkiness in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence (most of it bloody) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wayne Duvall, who plays the pipeline developer Sam Parker, is a cousin to actor Robert Duvall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews; Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freaks of Nature
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Monday


Love can leave us underwater.

(2020) Romance (IFC) Denise Gough, Sebastian Stan, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Michalis Laios, Michalis Alexakis, Giorgos Valais, Vangelis Mourikis, Fivos Kontogiannis, Grigoris Sarantis, Panagos Iokeim, Dominique Tipper, Prometheus Aleifer, Dimitris Kouroubalis, Orfeas Aygoustidis, Alexandros Logothetis, Syllas Tzoumerkas, Nikos Gialas, Elli Tringou. Directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos

 

The flush of love is equal parts sex and ego. We feel a connection that builds us up, comforts us, makes us feel deserving and worthwhile. And then there’s the sex. Let’s not forget that.

Greek director Papadimitropoulos (Suntan) doesn’t let that happen as his ex-pat couple Chloe (Gough), an immigration lawyer living in Athens but preparing to return to the States to take a hefty offer at a Chicago law firm, and Mickey (Stan), an oh-so-fine musician now working as a popular nightclub DJ, engage in passionate sex at the drop of a hat, or generally, with a whole lot less cause.

This romance takes place over the course of several weekends in their relationship, all involving some sort of watershed moment in the couple’s lives. We see them meet in an Athenian disco, begin making out before even learning the other’s name, and ending up naked on the beach which gets them escorted to the hoosegow. Despite Chloe’s career plans, that draw towards Mickey changes them and the two begin a relationship.

We learn that Mickey is the irresponsible one, a manchild who lives a party hearty lifestyle in a profession that most certainly has a shelf life, and is the father of a six-year-old son that his ex won’t let him see because of Mickey’s irresponsible tendencies, tendencies that will begin to surface and imperil the budding relationship, although it doesn’t stop them from having sex anywhere and everywhere.

In case you haven’t guessed from my vague clues, there are a lot of sex scenes in the movie which may make certain viewers uncomfortable or downright hostile. If sex scenes bother you, this is a movie to be avoided. Me, I’m all for a good roll in the hay during a movie, but while I get that the director was trying to make a point, I do subscribe to the theory that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The saving grace here is that Gough and Stan are not only attractive but charismatic screen presences, particularly Stan who most viewers know better as the Winter Soldier in the MCU films and Disney Plus TV show which has created quite the stir among fans in recent weeks. Stan has tended to be cast as a second banana in many of his appearances but Monday at least proves that the young actor is ready to take the next step in his career.

The movie clocks in at nearly two hours long which is about half an hour too long for a movie of this sort. Cutting about half of the sex scenes might have done the trick. Still in all, if you’re in the market for watching a couple of hot, attractive people in a romantic, sun-drenched location, this might be the cup of tea for your kettle.

REASONS TO SEE: Stan is a charismatic performer with a future as a romantic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Much too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a great deal of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Realm of the Senses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Rookies (2021)

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