Off the Rails


A European vacation that has absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jenny Seagrove, Sally Phillips, Kelly Preston, Andrea Corr, Judi Dench, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Ben Miller, Ledwin Vega Paez, Alessio Pecorari, Catalina Florit Llinas, Pedro Victory Ramos, Franco Nero, Martin Shaw, Peter Bowles, Ismael Calvillo Millán, Eva González Corpas, Alex Tejedor Andersen, Jordan Waller, Uve Barker. Directed by Jules Williamson

 

]At a certain age, we begin to reflect more on what came before than where we are headed. We examine the roads not taken, the paths we did take and the reasons we are where we are. These examinations tend to be melancholy and bittersweet, because humans almost universally tend to focus on regrets ahead of the things we did right.

]Three 50-something women – control freak Kate (Seagrove), uber-mom Liz (Phillips) and wise-cracking actress Cassie (Preston) have been hit by bad news; their close friend Anna has passed away. At her funeral, Anna’s mom (Dench) plops three Interrail passes in their hands and commands them to take Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (Dormer-Phillips) along for the ride, retracing their steps on a holiday taken thirty years earlier, culminating in an appearance at the Cathedral in Parma, Italy, where twice a year the light hits the stained glass just so, creating an effect known as “God’s Disco Ball,” a spectacle they missed the first time around and which is due to appear five days hence.

]This would be a good occasion to reflect on their friendship, the things that have separated (including the fact that one of them slept with the husband of another) them, and the things that draw them closer together. Of course, no holiday ever goes exactly the way its planned, but given the penchant these women have for getting into mischief, it’s a given that getting to Parma on the day indicated is no certain thing.

We’ve seen these sorts of movies before, where the death of a good friend causes those that survived to reconnect and become stronger and closer than ever, but this isn’t quite like that. It’s equal parts road movie and reflection, all held together by a soundtrack of Blondie music – essentially every song Blondie ever recorded appears at one point or another on the soundtrack, some more than once. It actually becomes distracting and gimmicky, and this coming from someone who might just love Blondie’s music as much as these characters supposedly do. File it under “too much of a good thing.”

]The thing about a movie like this is that in order to see any character growth, you have to get to know who the characters are and we never really do, beyond two-dimensional personality quirks. I don’t have an objection to watching middle-aged women act like hormonal teens (heaven knows we’ve seen enough movies with middle-aged men acting like hormonal teens) but this doesn’t serve to empower the women in the film, but rather just makes them less admirable. I would rather have seen these middle-aged women act like middle-aged women. It’s rare enough we see films with women of that particular age group as the focus; why can’t we just let them be themselves? *end rant*

]Dench, in a cameo appearance, just about steals the movie as she is capable of doing every time she steps in front of the camera. Preston, in her final screen appearance, acquits herself the most notably. I’m not sure she realized how sick she was at the time, but it seems ironic that her final role was about saying goodbye; one wonders if she knew that was exactly what she was doing herself.

I really hoped this movie would be better than it is, but too many cliches spoil the plot, and the lack of character development and the surfeit of Blondie music doom it. Something tells me when the filmmakers reach the point that they are looking back at their regrets, this movie will be among them.

REASONS TO SEE: Focuses on a demographic often ignored by the movies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last movie Preston made before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2020. The movie is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crossroads
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Triple Frontier

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New Releases for the Week of November 12, 2021


BELFAST

(Focus) Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Lewis McAskie, Josie Walker, Freya Yates. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

A nine-year-old Irish boy must suddenly chart his path to adulthood through terrain that is no longer familiar as life in Belfast begins to change in the late 1960s. What keeps him tethered is the ongoing magic of the movie theater. Taken from Branagh’s own childhood experiences.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and strong language)

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert

(Trafalgar) Max McLean, Nicholas Ralph, Eddie Ray Martin, Richard Harrington. The journey of author and creator of The Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis from a hardcore atheist to one of the most renowned Christian writers of his generation.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, CMX Daytona, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

Clifford the Big Red Dog

(Paramount) Darby Camp, David Alan Grier, John Cleese, Kenan Thompson. A middle schooler meets a magical animal rescuer who gifts her with a little red puppy. She wakes up the next morning to a giant red dog walking around her New York City apartment. With her mom away on business and her impulsive Uncle in charge, it’s time for an adventure that’s bigger than the Big Apple.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide (Opened on November 10th)
Rating: PG (for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action)

Multiverse

(Saban) Paloma Kwiatkowski, Munro Chambers, Marlee Matlin, Robert Naylor. Four scientists on the verge of a major breakthrough in quantum physics are struck by tragedy. The survivors are startled, several months later, when their dead colleague suddenly turns back up alive. Something remarkable has happened…and it may not be as beneficial as they at first believe.

See the trailer
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Studio Movie Grille Sunset Walk
Rating: R (for language throughout and some violence)

Raja Vikramarka

(Sree Chitra) Kartikeya Gummakonda, Tanya Ravichandran, Sudhakar Komakula, Sai Kumar. A green recruit for India’s version of the CIA is given his first case through a set of ironic circumstances, finding that the pressure is changing his life in every way imaginable.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: NR

Soulmate(s)

(Vertical) Stephanie Lynn, Alexandra Case, Mark Famiglietti, Di Quon. A pair of BFFs in Vermont are confronted by a large corporation threatening their small-town way of life. To make matters worse, one of them is falling hard for one of the corporate flunkies. The other, fearing not only for her town but for her friendship, will do anything to prevent the corporation’s plans – and her friend’s budding romance.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Studio Movie Grille Sunset Walk
Rating: NR

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

A Choice of Weapons (Monday)
The Accursed
Apex
Back to Sölöz
Home Sweet Home Alone
Kelvin Garnett: Anything is Possible
Mayor Pete
Night Raiders
Prayers for the Stolen
(Wednesday)
Set!
They Say Nothing Stays the Same

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Belfast
Mayor Pete
Prayers for the Stolen
Set!

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

New Releases for the Week of December 20, 2019


STAR WARS: RISE OF THE SKYWALKER

(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Forty years and ten movies on, and it all comes to this; the final chapter in the saga of the Skywalker family, from Anakin to Luke and now the last generation, the story that has spanned four decades comes to a conclusion. Is it going to be as emotionally satisfying as the MCU finale earlier this year? Probably not.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action)

A Hidden Life

(Fox Searchlight) August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti. The true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who refused to fight for the Nazis during the Second World War at great personal cost to himself and his family. This is the latest from recently prolific director Terrence Malick.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for traumatic material including violent images)

Bombshell

(Lionsgate) Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow. A group of women at Fox News take on Roger Ailes to try and change the toxic masculine atmosphere he created, leading to a profound shakeup at the official network of the Republican party.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Orlando, Cinepolis Hamlin, Cinepolis Polk County, Cobb Daytona Luxury, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pavilion Port Orange, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: R (for sexual material and language throughout)

Cats

(Universal) James Corden, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson. At long last comes the screen version of the hit Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, depicting a group of cats meeting to determine which one of them will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new and better life. The film has gotten a great deal of blowback due to the trailer which some found the CGI make-up effects disconcerting.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive material)
 

Dabangg 3

(Yash Raj) Salman Khan, Arbaaz Khan, Mahie Gill, Girish Taurani. India’s beloved badass cop Inspector Chulbul Pandey is back to take on a new case.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Hero</em
Prati Roju Pandage
Ruler
Thambi

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE/KEY WEST:

Hero
Only Cloud Knows
Prati Roju Pandage
Ruler
Thambi

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG/SARASOTA:

Ruler

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Prati Roju Pandage

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Hidden Life
Bombshell
Cats
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Mistletoe Movie Madness, Dania Beach, FL

New Releases for the Week of June 7, 2019


DARK PHOENIX

(20th Century Fox/Marvel) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee. Directed by Simon Kinberg

During a rescue mission to space, Jean Grey of the X-Men is hit by an unknown cosmic force which causes her powers to grow out of control and her personality to become unstable. The X-Men are forced to defend themselves against their friend and as an alien race seeks to weaponize her powers, the prospect that they might have to kill one of their own.

See the trailer, video featurettes, clips and interviews here
For more on the movie this is the website
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense scenes of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images and brief strong language)

All is True

(Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder. After playing this year’s Florida Film Festival, this British production is making its theatrical run. William Shakespeare has retired and seeks to make peace with his inner demons while reconnecting with a family that may be beyond reconciling with.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, suggestive material and language)

Bharat

(Viva) Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Disha Patani. As the day of India’s independence dawns, a man makes a promise to his father that he will keep his family together no matter what. Over the next 60 years, he keeps that promise despite the challenges thrown at him by each passing decade.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk

(Gravitas) Bill Murray, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw. While golf was invented in Scotland in the 15th century, it has only really boomed in popularity over the last century or so with golfers becoming huge celebrities. However, who gives a thought to the men who carry the clubs of those superstars? This is their story.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: PG (for some suggestive/rude humor, mild thematic elements, and smoking images)

The Secret Life of Pets 2

(Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford, Tiffany Haddish. Max and his friends in his apartment building continue their adventures from the first film as they head back out to explore the big city.

See the trailer, video featurettes and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some action and rude humor)

The Tomorrow Man

(Bleecker Street) John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton. A grumpy old man prepares for a disaster that may never happen. He meets a woman who can’t let go of the things she has. Together they fall in love but can they figure out a way not to get lost in each other’s stuff? This was another film that played this year’s Florida Film Festival.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website  
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some suggestive material)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Changeland
Mouthpiece
Virus

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

All About My Mother
Meeting Gorbachev
My Best Summer
The Silence of Others
The Souvenir
Wrong No. 2

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Abduction
The Brink
The Souvenir

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

None

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

All is True
Dark Phoenix
The Secret Life of Pets 2
The Tomorrow Man

All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell

 

Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.

Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.

Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”

While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”

Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.

Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.

The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mandy

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder