Creation Stories


Alan McGee is ignored in his own office.

(2021) Music Biography (RLJE) Ewen Bremner, Leo Flanagan, Richard Jobson, Rori Hawthorn, Tess Rowe, Ciaran Lawless, Jack Paterson, Gerry Knotts, James Hicks, Irvine Welsh, Mickey Gooch Jr., Tom Dunlea, Suki Waterhouse, Elysia Welch, Seána Kerslake, Theren Raufman, Michael Socha, Thomas Turgoose, Paul Gallagher, Thomas Grant, Mel Raido, Siobhan Redmond. Directed by Nick Moran

 

In the late-1980s through mid-1990s, alternative rock was more or less dominated by the United Kingdom. With apologies to Seattle grunge and hip-hop (which was in its formative era back then), American indie music tended to follow trends set in England months and years earlier. It is startling for some American music fans who are interested in the era to discover that several different sub-genres were essentially brought into the limelight by one man and his record label; Scotsman Alan McGee and Creation Records.

As a young boy in Glasgow, McGee (Flanagan) lip-synched and played air guitar to Bowie while his abusive father (Jobson) despaired of his son ever making anything of himself. With the support of his mother (Redmond) and sister (Hawthorn), he managed to survive with ego intact and after seeing the Sex Pistols on TV, determined to move to London and start a punk band. Unfortunately, his timing was bad and he arrived just as the punk era was more or less fading out.

But the now twenty-something McGee (Bremner), while not himself talented as a musician, knew talent when he heard it. He found the Jesus and Mary Chain and became their manager, using the profits from that relationship to pour into a record label that he named Creation, named after a 60s band that he admired. The band was a seat-of-the-pants operation early on but McGee had an uncanny knack of discovering bands and trends – like acid house (Primal Scream), shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine) and indie pop (Teenage Fan Club) before they became huge. But his most notable discovery was Oasis, the band that spearheaded the Britpop craze of the Nineties, and was for a time the biggest band in the world.

But as all rock docs let us know, the success was fueled by excess as McGee became hooked on ecstasy, cocaine and eventually, heroin. After his drug usage got to a point (he famously claims that he doesn’t remember anything about 1993 except signing Oasis) that he had a breakdown, he managed to clean up, but the cost to his personal life was high.

Having been a rock critic during the heyday of Creation, I can testify to the influential status of the label. While they weren’t the only influential label of their time, there really hasn’t been a label like them before or since. Moran’s somewhat fictionalized account of McGee’s life captures the era well, using montages, archival footage and New Music Express headlines. For someone who was in tune with what was going on across the pond, it brought up a lot of memories.

For those who were less in the loop, it might all be a bit confusing – the introduction of since-disgraced British DJ Jimmy Saville late in the movie might not resonate with those who aren’t aware of the reasons McGee despised him so deeply, for example. Bremner plays McGee in a somewhat over-the-top manner which ordinarily might be off-putting, yet is perfect for the task at hand. McGee was (and is) larger than life and it is a tough assignment to get his personality just right and in many ways Bremner’s portrayal doesn’t do McGee justice, but to be fair, nobody could.

Moran’s directorial style seems heavily influenced by Danny Boyle in his Trainspotting days (Boyle is a producer here, not coincidentally) and yes, the hyperactive style that Boyle made famous back then works wonderfully here. There’s a lot of cheeky humor here, some of it of the meme-worthy variety, that seems in tandem with McGee’s personality. It may grate at times, but I found it amusing anyway.

If there is a problem here, it’s just that it feels so much like every other rock biography out there, with enough reverence to be nearly hagiographic, but enough irreverence to make it rock and roll. Moran also uses the hoary old conceit of telling most of the story as a flashback, using an interview that McGee does with a fictional but comely interviewer (Waterhouse) in Los Angeles as a springboard for his anecdotes.

McGee is not as well-known over here in the States as he should be, but thankfully, the music he helped bring to the world speaks for itself and there is plenty of it on the soundtrack. Even so, the movie is definitely all about McGee and his personality which permeates the film. This is isn’t a movie whose innovation will match the music that it chronicles, but it is serviceable enough a story and the music is good enough to carry the movie through.

REASONS TO SEE: A cheeky sense of humor. A great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems a bit too much like most rock biographies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a shit ton of profanity, drug use, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s world premiere at the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival, which is also where McGee was from and where much of the early portion of the movie is set.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC Plus, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Your Friends
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Seobok: Project Clone

Advertisement

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain


Artist Louis Wain paints what he sees.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Amazon) Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Stacy Martin, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Taika Waititi, Crystal Clarke, Daniel Rigby, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Dorothy Atkinson, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman (voice), Jamie Demetriou, Sophia Di Martino. Directed by Will Sharpe

 

The line between madness and genius is a thin one indeed. It is often difficult to realize that the line has been crossed once we have moved to the wrong side of it.

Louis Wain (Cumberbatch) was a talented illustrator who worked in London in the late 19th century. In 1881, his sister Caroline (Riseborough) hired a nanny for her four younger sisters. Emily Richardson (Foy) came into the household and soon Louis was enchanted. The sole breadwinner for his family including his mother (Nicholls) and five sisters, he had never had a thought for marriage before, and this particular one was scandalous, seeing as Miss Richardson was about a decade older than he, and from a different class strata.

Nevertheless, the two were married, and although their happiness would be short-lived, she did give him a gift that would have repercussions long beyond her years; a stray cat named Peter, soaking wet in the yard of their cottage. As Wain struggled with his grief, he found himself becoming fascinated with cats as a subject for his work – anthropomorphic cats who frolicked on two legs, smoked cigars, served tea, and smiled with big eyes. The drawings and cards of Wain became unbelievably popular, and it is no exaggeration to say that his work helped change the minds of Victorian England as to the place of cats in their household; once thought useful only for catching vermin, they began to be considered as companions and pets, a position they occupy (but don’t necessarily enjoy) to this day.

In the meantime, Louis’ sanity was beginning to slip away. His obsession with electricity and its power began to color his thinking. He began to hallucinate, sometimes horrifically. Ass Louis, a somewhat naïve businessman, had never copyrighted his images, they were copied left and right, leaving Louis nearly destitute. He was committed to an asylum, although once the appalling conditions of his commitment became known, no less a personage than H.G. Wells (Cave) would lead a plea for funds to be raised so that he might live out the remainder of his years in nicer surroundings, which happily turned out to be the case (he would die on July 4, 1939).

Although Wain has largely been forgotten over the years, his images presaged the obsession with cats and their behavior which have helped make the Internet the gigantic waste of time that it is today (I write this unironically, knowing that you, my dear reader, are taking this in on the net). Still, his story is a fascinating one and his impact fairly important. In his time, he influenced cartoons, animation and even cinema. Some of his later images were almost psychedelic in nature, and pop art certainly owes him a debt.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain with an earnestness that would befit Hugh Grant, albeit with less stammering. The cast is impressive, in particular Foy, who gives Emily a certain radiance and who pairs well with Cumberbatch, and Colman, whose narration is at times hysterically funny.

Sharpe and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson use a bright and colorful palette to frame their story, which is fairly unusual for movies set in Victorian England, which is often portrayed as grimy and grey. Sharpe also ratchets up the poignancy, particularly in the second half. I found myself well-affected by the film, although I would have liked to have seen a coda at the end and perhaps speeded up the pace a bit in the first half. This is definitely a film for cat lovers, as well as for fans of Cumberbatch, who is at his best here. I would daresay that also those who are interested in learning more about artists who have been shoved off to the side as time has gone by should profit well by watching this.

REASONS TO SEE: Highly recommended for Cumberbatch fans and cat lovers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a little while to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic material, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Colman and Foy have appeared as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Munich: The Edge of War

Yardie


“D” Fence.

(2018) Crime Drama (Amazon) Ami Ameen, Stephen Graham, Shantol Jackson, Mark Rhino Smith, Fraser James, Calvin Demba, Akin Gazi, Naomi Ackie, Philips Nortey, Antwayne Eccleston, Rayon McLean, Sheldon Shepherd, Christopher Daly, Reshawna Douglas, Alexandra Vaz, Chris-Ann Fletcher, Paul Haughton, Everaldo Creary, Carol Lawes. Directed by Idris Elba

Some of the greatest music ever made came out of the Jamaican reggae scene of the 70s. Some of the most brutal crime lords were also based in Kingston at the time. Dj Jerry Dread (Creary) believes that reggae can bring peace to warring factions, and invites the leaders of those factions to shake hands at a music festival he’s putting together. Instead, he gets gunned down by one of the durg lords for his troubles, witnessed by his little brother Dennis.

Now an adult going by the name D (Ameen), he is working for the other kingpin King Fox (Shepherd) who comes to the realization that D is far too unstable and violent for the island. He sends him to London to deliver a shipment of cocaine to Jamaican-born Rico (Graham), but D, feeling disrespected by Rico, decides to sell the shipment himself. This, as you might imagine, doesn’t go over well.

So D hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Yvonne (Jackson) and reconnects with the daughter that he hadn’t seen since she was a baby. He also means to make something of himself as a DJ (following in his late brother’s footsteps) while becoming a drug lord on his own. Then, when he finds out that the man who pulled the trigger that killed his brother is in London, he has a whole new project to concentrate on.

Ameen delivers a searing performance that will stay with you for quite some time. He’s one to keep an eye out for. In the meantime, he gets to play off of Graham, who doesn’t mind chewing the scenery somewhat. At times, one might be forgiven for wondering if they had tuned in a Guy Ritchie crime boss film by mistake.

The story isn’t particularly inspiring – D is far too volatile and self-destructive to be a protagonist that you’ll want to identify with – and it does drag a little bit in the middle, but it makes up for that with a climax that is bat guano crazy.

REASONS TO SEE: Ameen is charismatic as all hell.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags somewhat in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and violence as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason has a twin brother Jeremy who is also an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peppermint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Arctic Void

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Dracula (1931)


Look into my eyes…

(1931) Horror (Universal) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles Gerrard, Moon Carroll, Josephine Velez, Michael Visaroff, Cornelia Thaw, Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, Barbara Bozoky, Anna Bakacs, Tod Browning (voice), John George, Wyndham Standing, Bunny Beatty. Directed by Tod Browning

As the silent era drew to a close and talkies became the “in” thing, Dracula – based on a stage play and not directly on Bram Stoker’s novel, although the play certainly used it as a starting point – became for Universal, the beginning of the studio’s long tenure as the monster studio. Together with Frankenstein which appeared later the same year, it became part of the one-two punch that would land legendary movie monsters like the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man at the studio and terrify generations of moviegoers and kids watching creature feature TV shows.

Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet up with a client to close a leasing of property in London. The superstitious villagers warn him not to go to the Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, but he fails to heed their warnings and takes an unusual coach trip – a coach with no driver. Once at the castle, he meets Count Dracula (Lugosi) who turns out to be a man with a supernaturally intense gaze and a dislike of wine, which he never drinks. But the Count turns out to be more than a man – he is a vampire, the undead, as Renfield discovers too late – being driven mad and becoming the Count’s servant.

When the ship Renfield booked passage on returns to London, the horrible discovery is that the crew is all dead, there are a number of coffins aboard and only one survivor – Renfield, who is locked away in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Bunston). Seward’s daughter Mina (Chandler) is engaged to the handsome John Harker (Manners) and is close friends with Lucy Weston (Dade), a neighbor of the property the Count has leased. But the Count recognizes Lucy as a potential meal, and transforms her into a fellow vampire.

Fortunately, professional vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Van Sloan) arrives, in hot pursuit of the Count. He knows Dracula for what he is, and knows how to kill him. But can he and Harker possibly defeat a nearly immortal creature that has 500 years of experience in defeating foolish mortals like themselves?

This is a movie that is a classic in every sense of the word. The brooding, gothic sets; the wonderfully atmospheric cinematographer of Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who worked with F.W. Murnau on Metropolis and The Last Laugh and whom some credit with co-directing the movie, so important were his contributions. Browning chose to release the film without a score; music has since been added, but if you’ve ever seen a version without music, you’ve seen it as the director intended.

But what makes the movie is Lugosi. A Hungarian émigré, his English is heavily accented which would dog Lugosi throughout his career; however, the Eastern European lilt is perfect for the role as are Lugosi’s expressive eyes. Lugosi came from a theatrical background and often uses grand gestures in his performance here, a product of that background. That kind of thing was less noticeable back in the early sound era, when many stage actors were recruited for the talkies as silent actors often had voices that didn’t reproduce well (as with John Gilbert) or who gave stiff readings of their dialogue. The intensity of Lugosi’s performance here, though, is unquestioned and for nearly a century since the movie was released, is the performance most associated with the role, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella notwithstanding.

There are strong elements of melodrama in the screenplay, and Browning’s direction is often stiff and stagey, and for those reasons there are some who feel that the movie doesn’t hold up weel, but I disagree. Freund’s tracking shot as Renfield enters the castle is a breathtaking introduction to the Count, and the terrifying coach ride through the Carpathians is creepy even today. Not only is this a true Halloween classic and perhaps the ultimate Universal monster movie (credited with keeping the studio afloat through near-bankruptcy during the Depression), it is one of the most perfect adaptations of the Dracula legend ever. For all lovers of scary cinema, this is truly a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully atmospheric. A legendary performance by Lugosi. Classic in every sense of the word. Still spooky even by modern standards. Certain scenes still give me the heebie-jeebies.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might feel a bit quaint and dated for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is implied violence and sexuality, and some mild terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie began life as a Broadway play; Lugosi had originated the title role on the Great White Way and along with Van Sloan and Bunston, are the only actors to transition from the stage version to the screen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Peacock, Redbox, Spectrum, TCM, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; ;Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nosferatu
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Crutch

Censor


Some doors shouldn’t be opened.

(2021) Horror (Magnet) Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Felicity Montagu, Danny Lee Wynter, Clare Perkins, Guillaume Delaunay, Richard Glover, Erin Shanagher, Beau Gadsdon, Amelie Child-Villiers, Matthew Earley, Richard Renton, Bo Bragason, Amelia Craighill, Madeleine Hutchins. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

 
We all have different tolerances for horror movies. Some of us delight in them, loving the thrill ride feeling of being scared. Others may find the feeling uncomfortable and shy away from horror films. Still others, who carry past traumas like demons that are summoned at the flicker of a screen, can find a horror movie to be something of a time bomb.

Enid Baines (Algar) is a tightly-wound British film censor back in the 1980s during an age of horror films that are looked back upon fondly by aficionados of the genre. Called “video nasties” by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians, the moral outcry was because the new technology of VCRs would allow movies like The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave into the home where children could be exposed to them without supervision. It is her task to determine what sort of cuts needed to be made in order to bring a film up to code, or whether to ban a film outright. She takes her job seriously.

Perhaps that’s because her job is essentially all she has. Her relationship with her mum (Holman) and Dad (Havill) is strained at the moment – that’s because they have elected to declare her sister Nina, who disappeared twenty years earlier, dead. Enid sees this as a betrayal, largely because of the guilt feelings that she has because she was present when Nina disappeared and can’t remember any details.

Then, when reviewing a film called Don’t Go In the Church by cult film director Frederick North (Schiller) whose sleazy producer Doug Smart (Smiley) puts the moves on the increasingly agitated Enid, she notices that the actress Alice Lee (La Porta) looks very much the way Nina might as an adult. Also, she notices that the events of the film – in which two little girls enter a deserted cabin in the middle of the woods – mirror the fractured memories of her sister’s disappearance to an uncomfortable degree.

This sends Enid, convinced that the red-headed actress IS her sister, down a spiral as she looks into the films of Frederick North, including the one he’s currently filming, in an effort to rescue her long-lost sister and bring her home. Is Enid right, and is she about to solve a mystery that has haunted her for 20 years? Or has the years of watching massive amounts of violence and mayhem ultimately unhinged her?

First-time feature director Bailey-Bond has a self-assured hand on the tiller, and together with cinematographer Annika Summerson has nicely recreated the look of horror movies from the 80s with neon-glow lighting, earthtoned costumes and dull, drab office spaces. She does a good job building up the tension, aided by the sound designer Tim Harrison whose use of electronic pulses, barely audible screams and loud thumps keeps the viewer off-balance. Although the movie goes a bit off the rails near the end when the director gets, in my opinion, a bit self-indulgent, she immediately makes up for it with an ending that is absolutely amazing, one that left me grinning ear to ear, not something that happens often at the conclusion of a film.

Algar, an up and coming Irish actress, does a mesmerizing job, evolving Enid from a buttoned-down schoolmarm-ish sort and unraveling into someone whose entire world has been shattered and doesn’t know which end is up or down any longer. It’s the kind of performance that bodes well for us seeing more of her in the future in higher profile films.

This is more or less a psychological horror film with a nod to British horror films of the 60s made in the style of the video nasties of the 80s. While there is a good deal of gore on the screen, it largely comes from the clips that Enid is reviewing, mostly from actual films of the era (the Frederick North films are the exception). This is a solid debut that horror fans should be keeping an eye out for when it hits streaming platforms this Friday – until then, check your local listings for the nearest theater in which it’s playing.

REASONS TO SEE: An exceptionally clever ending. The use of sound to create an unsettling atmosphere is masterful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does go off the rails a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and profanity – a true video nasty!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Algar is probably best-known to American audiences as Sue in the Apple TV Ridley Scott sci-fi series Raised By Wolves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peeping Tom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Those Who Wish Me Dead

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

We Are Many


Proof that politicians can ignore even the loudest voices of the people.

(2014) Documentary (Area 23aRichard Branson, Hans Blix, Susan Sarandon, John Le Carré, Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, Ken Loach, Danny Glover, Tom Hayden, Brian Eno, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Jesse Jackson, Robert Greenwald, Jeremy Corbyn, Gen. Lawrence Wilkerson, Tariq Ali, Philippe Sands, John Rees, Lord Charles, Victoria Branson, Rafaella Bonini. Directed by Amir Amirani

 

“The power of the people” rests in the will of the people to act in concert. When people unite, they can accomplish great things. That is, at least, the story we’ve been told, but what if I told you that somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide gathered on the same day around the world to protest a war – and the war happened anyway?

After 9-11, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan because reliable intelligence had the leadership of Al-Qaeda holed up in the caves of that country. The military might of the United States and its allies quickly overwhelmed the Taliban government of Afghanistan. After the collective trauma, grief and rage of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, it didn’t feel like enough. The Bush Administration turned its eyes to Iraq, the country that the president’s father had invaded nearly twenty years before. Aided and abetted by the Tony Blair government in the UK, the word went out that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would launch at the West.

We know now that those weapons of mass destruction never existed, r if they did, they didn’t exist anymore. Blair, Bush and their governments knowingly and willfully lied to their citizens in order to popularize a war that they couldn’t legally justify. Most of the people of both countries bought the lies hook, line and sinker, myself included. Not everybody did, though.

Some felt that the war was an unjust one; that the real motivation for the war was to enrich the profits of the oil companies. “No blood for oil,” was the popular chant. Protests were organized in Europe and then, although social media was in its infancy, the Internet was used to plan and co-ordinate massive rallies across the globe. While the movement began in Europe, it quickly spread to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But as we all know, all the outpouring of dissent went for naught. A month later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. and many of its allies remain there to this day, 17 years later. Thousands of coalition soldiers never came home. The number of Iraqi dead may be as much as more 1,500,000. There is a little bit of a post-mortem, but other than one semi-tenuous link to much more successful protests later (more on that below), we really don’t get a sense of what the march actually accomplished, and its lasting legacy, if any.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is detailed information on how the massive march was coordinated. You get the feeling it was just kind of a grass roots seat-of-the-pants operation that just sprouted up independent of one another in various cities, countries – and Antarctica (that’s right). We get more information about the political goings-on leading up to that time – most of which is easily available elsewhere – and not nearly enough inside information on how difficult it was to coordinate the marches, the logistical issues they ran into, that sort of thing. We do get a lot of celebrity talking heads, talking about their involvement with the march. The only one I found truly compelling was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson who expresses regret now about the events that brought the United States into Iraq.

The movie was actually filmed in 2013, ten years after the protest, so there is a bit of perspective here. The film has been given a virtual theatrical release, six years after its original theatrical release in 2014. For whatever reason, it never got a North American release back then, so now that we’re dealing with massive protests around the country, a pandemic and the most contentious Presidential election since the Civil War, I guess they figured the time was right.

You also have to take into account that at the end of the day, the war happened anyway, but the filmmakers don’t really address that in any detail. They do point out a tentative connection between the protest and the Arab Spring that took place seven years later, and they may not be wrong; certainly the organizers of those protests used the march as inspiration, but how much is subject to interpretation.

It is important that we remember the march because it was an important moment in which the world came together with one voice for possibly the first time – and were ignored by their leaders. It is a sobering thought that if peaceful protests that massive in nature may no longer influence the powers that be. One wonders how far the people will have to go to get their point across now.

REASONS TO SEE: Very timely given the current climate of protest around the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Explains why the protests were made but doesn’t really get into how this massive event was organized.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and depictions of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The protest still remains the largest worldwide gathering of people; it took place on February 15, 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Draupadi Unleashed

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Benjamin (2018)


Netflix and chill.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (ArtsploitationColin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Phénix Brossard, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine, Joel Fry, Mayo Simon, Mark Kermode, Gabe Gilmour, Arnab Chanda, Robin Peters, James Bloor, Jessie Cave, Mawaan Rizwan, James Lailey, Michele Belgrand, Ellie Kendrick, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alex Lowe, Laura Matassa, Kriss Dosanjh, Joanne Howarth. Directed by Simon Amstell

 

We all have a tendency to be our own worst enemies, saying the wrong thing at exactly the worst possible time, or overthinking a project and thereby ruining it. Our insecurities have the unsettling knack of getting the better of us.

That’s true for Benjamin Oliver (Morgan), an indie film director who won a BAFTA for his first film – “the best thing I could have done is make that film and then died,” he quips – but has been struggling mightily to avoid a sophomore slump with his second film. However, in true Benjamin fashion he has taken a simple relationship and rendered it a gauntlet of pretension by adding odd clips of Buddhist monks mouthing pithy aphorisms that ultimately sound smart but don’t make the film any better, a meta conceit that one has to applaud the filmmaker for recognizing and poking fun at.

Benjamin has a group of friends who are about as messed up as he is; his acerbic producer (Chancellor) who spends much of her time propping up Benjamin’s insecurities; Stephen (Fry), a stand-up comedian whose depression sometimes turns his act into the worst therapy session imaginable; Billie (Raine), the publicist who tries in vain to mitigate Benjamin’s instincts.

Add into this mix Noah (Brossard), a fey French musician trying to make an impact on the extremely competitive London music scene who becomes Benjamin’s romantic interest, despite the fact that Benjamin is certain that he is incapable of love.

To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the work of comedian Simon Amstell, although to be fair we Yanks have had a lot on our minds lately so following the careers of comedians across the pond hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Still, judging from I can see here, it isn’t going to be long before he’s as well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s got that droll British sense of humor down, but tempers it with observational humor that is at times uncanny; while there are some barbs directed both at London’s art underground and at the state of romance in England in general, much of what is commented here is pretty universal. Everyone has been guilty of blurting out that one conversation-killing remark in a room full of people that you may or may not be trying to impress. I know I have.

I have this categorized as a romantic comedy, but that really isn’t precisely right. It’s not like the rom-coms you might be used to; it’s more accurately a comedy that involves romance. The movie really isn’t about Benjamin’s romantic issues, although they play a part. This is about Benjamin’s relationship with himself, and his self-destructive flaws. There’s some poignancy, but it’s not a downer of a fiilm; nor is it a life-affirming celebration either. This is the kind of movie that exhibits how life is for certain people in particular circumstances, while giving those circumstances and those people a bit of a poke in the backside.

The movie is a bit on the twee side, sort of like Belle and Sebastian covering all of Morrissey’s greatest hits and if you understand that reference, this is the movie for you. There’s enough of the jaded romantic in Amstell to make the humor biting at times, but not enough to drown the movie in ennui. There are a few false steps here and there, but not as many as you might think; The only thing that keeps me from giving this a higher score is that there is a sense that this is aimed at a certain niche of indie film buffs that might not resonate as clearly with the mainstream, but that’s quite all right – not every movie needs to appeal to the crowd that awaits the next Marvel movie with breathless anticipation.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very droll humor that fans of British comedy will love.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the twee side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on director Simon Amstell’s own experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Thing
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rent-a-Pal