Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

Postcards From London


I am young and, oh, so pretty…

(2018) LGBT Drama (Diablo/StrandHarris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desprez, Jerome Holder, Leemore Marrett Jr., Silas Carson, Stephen Boxer, Leo Hatton, Emma Curtis, Ben Cura, Lew Hogan, Archie Rush, Richard Durden, Johanne Murdock, Giles New, Shaun Aylward, Rhys Yates, Georgina Strawson. Directed by Steve McLean

 

Steve McLean loves him some art, and that love is really what drives Postcards From London. Starring Beach Bums wunderkind Harris Dickinson as Jim, a stupendously naïve 18-year-old kid from Essex who goes to Jolly London and Soho specifically to chase adventure and mystery, he ends up being taken under the wing of four male escorts (Hauer-King, Cimadamore, Salerni, Desprez) who call themselves “The Raconteurs” and supply older, more discerning male clientele with post-coital conversation about literature and art.

The movie’s highly stylized look features plenty of neon and is all apparently shot on sound stages – not a single scene apparently takes place when the sun is shining. At least, we find no evidence of it. Dickinson did the callow youth thing about as well as anybody at that stage of his career, but he is given little more to work with than that his character is afflicted with Stendhal syndrome, a rare disease that causes the afflicted to lose their consciousness in the presence of beautiful art – weak in the presence of beauty, indeed. While swooning, Jim often imagines himself as part of the art, posing for Caravaggio (Cura) with his friends. These scenes are the most imaginative and notable but sadly, the film too often into pretension over its 90-minute run time.

This is certainly a work of passion which despite the fact that sex is a large part of the atmosphere, is remarkably coy about showing any. While the homoeroticism may titillate some, it is no more than you would find in the average drag show when push comes to shove. Dazzling to look at, this is indeed a film that takes the adage “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” a bit too closely to heart.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a semi-whimsical sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be different.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual material, some violence and a fair amount of profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second feature McLean has directed; his first was in 1994 (Postcards From America) marking a 14-year differential between debut and sophomore effort.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trois: The Escort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Working Man

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


An expanding family portrait.

(2018) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, David Wilmot, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jessica Williams, Hugh Quarshie, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Derek Riddell, Poppy Corby-Tuech. Directed by David Yates

 

The Harry Potter franchise has been nothing short of a cash cow for Warner Brothers. After Harry’s adventures came to an end, we looked forward with some eagerness to the adventures of New Scamander in a prequel of sorts. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became the expected massive hit, the proposed trilogy was expanded into a five-film series.

Heavy on exposition, the second film in the series has turned out to be a bloated mess. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped from captivity and looks to continue his quest to amass an army to take over the world and rule all muggles. He has seen a vision of the future and it includes a mushroom cloud, so one can hardly blame him there – we muggles certainly made a hash of things.

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) would rather continue to gather magical beasts from around the world but he is under a travel ban until his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Law) gives him a new quest – to find Creedence (Miller), the emotionally abused young man from the first film. It turns out that the Ministry of Magic is also after him. And so is Grindelwald. Newt, aided by the woman he loves, American auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her ditzy sister Queenie (Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend (as well as Newt’s buddy from the first film) Jacob the Baker (Fogler) will have to step lively if they are to find the elusive Creedence, who is searching for his past so he may discover truly who and what he is. He is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the show.

The tone is distinctly darker here, as most second films of fantasy series’ are. J.K. Rowling’s world-building skills are beyond reproach but I get the sense she was trying to accomplish too much with this film; in addition to the main characters from the first film there are also plenty of new ones running around, so much so that it becomes difficult to determine who’s who and what’s what. The movie gets bogged down in plot exposition and character development, eschewing action a little bit too much.

The special effects are wondrous, of course, as you would expect. There are plenty of amazing creature effects here, both CGI and practical. The cast does it’s level best but I got the sense that they, too, were confused by what was going on behind them. The third film, after the disappointing reviews and box office of this film, is being retooled but hopefully it will right the course for the series which has made a most definite misstep.

REASONS TO SEE: The beasties continue to be nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underwhelming performances and plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Newt Scamander’s basement, where he keeps his beasts, was inspired by an M.C. Escher print (Relativity).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews, Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mowgli

Bohemian Rhapsody


Freddy Mercury in his element.

(2018) Musical Biography (20th Century FoxRami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett, Felipe Bejarano, Neil Fox-Roberts, Michelle Duncan. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

For an outsider, Freddie Mercury became symbolic to a lot of people. To people of my generation, he was a peerless rock star, perhaps the very embodiment of one. To music historians, he brought grand opera into rock and roll, with all the silliness and grandeur that implies. To the LGBTQ community, he was one of their own who made it big on his own terms. He was the voice of his generation.

Of course, to play such a bigger-than-life performer, you’re going to need a bigger-than-life performance and fortunately, that is delivered here. Rami Malek, best-known at the time for the TV series Mr. Robot, won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury and justifiably so – it was one of the best performances of the decade. Malek inhabits the role completely and gets every little nuance right. It is as close to having Freddy back as we’re likely to get.

That said, the movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of music industry biopics, it tends to focus on the sensational – the parties, the lifestyle, the drugs and the sex – and while not ignoring the creative process completely, at least gives it less attention than it deserves. It’s easy to be caught up in the excesses, and yes, the band was known for them, but that wasn’t all they were.

They were (and are) also extraordinary musicians and incredibly creative, as the music attests. The film uses the music of Queen to great effect. The re-creation of their triumphant Live-Aid performance in 1985 after an absence of several years opens and closes the film. Many believe that it was one of the best rock and roll performances of all time and they’re not wrong.

Queen is remembered for merging rock and roll and opera, with all the silliness and high drama that it entails, so perhaps the movie was destined to have its share of drama – director Bryan Singer was fired and the film was finished by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher late in the process – but for those who loved Queen (like Da Queen, for example) this is absolutely required viewing. The real challenge for any musical biopic is that it have appeal not just to the main fan base of the act, but also to casual fans as well. I believe even those who weren’t necessarily Queen devotees will get something out of this film, if nothing else Malek’s incredible performance.

REASONS TO SEE: Malek gives the performance of a lifetime. Uses the music of Queen magnificently.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes, a little gossipy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, plenty of sexuality, adult thematic content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek wore a prosthetic device to re-create Mercury’s famous overbite. After shooting concluded, he kept the prosthetic and eventually had it cast in gold.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocketman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Church and State

Liam Gallagher: As It Was


A rock star’s P.O.V.

(2019) Music Documentary (Screen MediaLiam Gallagher, Debbie Gwyther, Mike Smith, Paul Gallagher, JC Finan, Phil Christie, Drew McConnell, David Adcock, Peggy Gallagher, Sam Eldridge, Jay Mehler, Noel Gallagher, Christian Madden, Dan McDougal, Lennon Gallagher, Gene Gallagher, Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, Mike Moore, Jo Whiley, Molly Gallagher. Directed by Gavin Fitzgerald and Charlie Lightening

 

Readers in their thirties or older will remember Oasis, the British pop group that dominated the British charts and earned praise and platinum record sales here in the States. Some might remember that they were led by the battlin’ Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel who on August 28, 2009 got into a huge fight backstage at a Paris concert which led to the cancellation of the remainder of the tour. Noel quit the band the next day and the two brothers have not spoken or seen each other since.

The remaining members of Oasis continued as Beady Eye for a few more years but were unable to recapture the same magic or chart success as they had with Noel and broke up in 2014. Liam, despondent over the breakup of his band and also of the dissolution of his second marriage, wondered if his career had run its course. He self-medicated with alcohol and drugs before getting into a relationship with his former assistant Debbie Gwyther who would later be named his manager.

He went on to record an album, As You Were which was a smash success (a follow-up is scheduled to be released later this month – September 2019) and while Liam has matured some from his bad boy days, he is still the foul-mouthed straight shooter he has always been. He says what’s on his mind and the consequences are not a priority, although he admits that he has some regrets over the things he’s said in the past that have hurt people.

This documentary covers the time essentially from the day of the Oasis break-up to the end of the tour for As You Were. There are plenty of interviews, with Liam’s partner, mother, his brother Paul, label executives for Warner Brothers UK (who released the album) and musicians who played on the album.

There is a hint of hagiography; this has the feel of a promotional film, or worse yet, an episode of the old VH-1 series Behind the Music. On the surface, there seems to be an attempt to make this “warts and all” but it also must be said that the filmmakers hammer the point numerous times that family is important to Liam, particularly his mother, his two sons Lennon and Gene and the daughter he only recently discovered he had, Molly. It’s hard to reconcile that, however, with his refusal to even broach the subject of a reconciliation with his brother.

Personally, I don’t understand it, particularly in light of how quickly and suddenly people leave this life. They’re mad at each other over what, a band? The two grew up in the same fracking bedroom, for effs sake. What do these disputes matter? Who cares which one of them mans up and makes the first step? It’s not a freakin’ contest to see which one is the most stubborn. One day, one of them will be gone and then where will the other be? Kicking his own arse at what a fool he was all his life.

Fatherly advice aside (as if Liam or Noel are ever going to read it), there is a lot of great music here – Liam’s last album was killer, make no mistake. Still, this isn’t a movie that’s going to do much digging into the soul and psyche of Liam Gallagher and pretty much whatever your opinion of the man or his music, assuming you have one, isn’t likely to change much. While I highly recommend this for fans of Oasis – there’s a lot of great footage here you’re not likely to see anywhere else – those looking for a hard-hitting documentary that explores its subject with some depth are likely to be disappointed.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely a must for Oasis fans.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit superficial, like an edition of VH-1’s Behind the Music.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Liam’s time with Oasis is extensively referenced, there are no Oasis songs on the soundtrack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Depraved

Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist


The face of a modern barbarian.

2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke

 

News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.

Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?

That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).

Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.

It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.

REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied  information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teacher

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward