The Penny Black


Who knew collecting stamps could be so exciting?

(2020) Documentary (1091) Will Cassayd-Smith, Cheryl Baumbaugh, Alex Greer, Joe Saunders, Bonnie Collins, Allison, Roman. Directed by William J. Saunders

 

The Penny Black was the first self-adhesive stamp in history. It was first issued in 1840 and has a bit of an odd history. Because of its color, the British Post Office had to cancel the stamps using red ink, which as it turned out was water soluble and could be washed, allowing the canny to reuse the stamps. The British, who are nothing if not problem solvers, simply put out new stamps called Penny Reds which could be canceled with black ink which was NOT water soluble. Problem solved.

As you can guess, those stamps which are over 175 years old, are fairly valuable. But why, pray tell, are we interested in this old stamp? Well, meet Will Cassayd-Smith, an affable young Millennial living in Los Angeles. He sometimes would go outside his apartment to smoke, and there he would often meet one of his neighbors, a man with a heavy Russian accent he knew only as Roman. The two men got to know each other and often went out to local bars to have a few adult beverages. One night, when Roman had more than a few, he prevailed upon Will to watch a package for him. He’s been fighting with his wife, you see, and he doesn’t want to leave it with her because she might sell it just to spite him. Will says sure, Roman thanks him and says he’ll be back in two weeks.

Two weeks come and go and Roman doesn’t return. Will becomes concerned and takes a look at the package and finds one large book, two smaller books and several loose leaf pages – all filled with stamps. And, when weeks stretch into months, Will takes the collection to be appraised and discovers that there are more than a few stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars, including the Penny Black – which, incidentally, isn’t the most valuable stamp in the collection.

Will is beginning to freak out. He never counted on having to be responsible for something of that value. And what happened to Roman? How did he come by these stamps? The more Will finds out, the more unsettled he becomes. His friend, a sports documentary producer, becomes involved in chronicling the tale for Will.

But Will has a checkered past of his own. His father, from whom he’s estranged, was a con artist who forged documents and artwork, before being deported for his crimes. And Will suddenly has a brand new car, followed up by a brand new sailboat. How did he get them? Gifts. But one of the stamp books is missing. Where did it go? Will is vague. He doesn’t remember. Maybe when he and his girlfriend Alison broke up and he moved out, it accidentally got thrown out. Sounds a bit sketchy to me.

And that’s kind of the point. If ever there was a poster boy for unreliable narration, it’s Will. Saunders wisely doesn’t let you know what he thinks about the whole situation, other than it sounds fishy. He seems to accept Will’s explanations at face value, and that’s not hard to do because Will is doing and saying the right things. He has hired a private detective to look into finding the whereabouts of Roman. He also explores the possibility that the collection was stolen, talking to a woman in Arizona who reported a sizable theft of stamps from her grandfather’s estate. Are these stamps from that collection? We never find out definitively.

And that’s where the genius of the movie comes in – this isn’t a movie about explanations. You pretty much have to find your own. And when Roman does finally show up, things get really tense and crazy, but we are still left with far more questions than answers. One begins to wonder how legitimate Will’s tale is. And then one wonders if the filmmakers are in on it if it’s not. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

There are some hiccups. The soundtrack is overbearing and intrusive. One would have wished for less music, or at least something a little less obvious. The story also has a tendency to make abrupt cuts from one direction to the other; that may well have been how it developed in real time, but it still feels choppy.

We live in untrustworthy times. We view our neighbors with suspicion and our only friends are online, well beyond arm’s length. The movie isn’t commenting on that directly, but trustworthiness is certainly a major component of the movie. The story is compelling enough to hold your interest from beginning to end, at which time it directs you to the film’s website for further details. There are several deleted scenes available on the website, but no further clarity. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Some stories were never meant to be clear.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly intriguing story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is intrusive and overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Slamdance in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder Death Koreatown
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

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

Tusk


Tea for two and two for tea...

Tea for two and two for tea…

(2014) Twisted Horror (A24) Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp, Harley Morenstein, Ralph Garman, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Ashley Greene, Douglas Banks, Matthew Shively, Zak Knutson, Bill Bennett, Randy Grazio, Paula Jiling, Todd Davis, Bonnie Cole. Directed by Kevin Smith

What separates humans from animals? There are those who believe that animals are far nobler than humans, that at our core we are rotten, vicious, callous creatures who wreak havoc on each other and the environment. It really is hard to argue the point.

Wallace Bryton (Long) is a podcaster who webcasts with his good buddy Teddy Craft (Osment) on something he calls The Not See Party (say it out loud if you want to get the joke). They specialize in commenting on videos that you can’t un-see, like the Kill Bill kid (Banks) – a Winnipeg teen who accidentally lops off his own leg while filming himself playing with an actual sword. Not smart.

Which is why Wallace flies to Winnipeg to get an interview with the kid. While there he espies on a bathroom wall of a bar an ad by a man named Howard Howe (Parks) looking for someone to live in his mansion for free in exchange for listening to his sea-faring tales and doing some light housework. The ad captures Wallace’s imagination and he calls Howe and arranges to meet. He drives off to Bifrost, a municipality that is about a two hour drive from Winnipeg in the Interlake district (Manitoba has a crapload of lakes for those unfamiliar with Canada’s plains province).

He discovers that Howard has a penchant for walruses…and is more than a little bit deranged. A panicked phone call to his girlfriend Ally (Rodriguez) gets her and Teddy out to Canada, where the police are more or less sympathetic but not too interested in helping them. One such sympathetic cop (Garman) gives the two the card of a disgraced Quebecois detective with a thick accent named Guy Lapointe (Depp) who tells them a bone-chilling tale about the serial killer he’s been chasing for ten years – and who might well be Howard Howe.

The movie began life as an idea on Smith’s SModcast which he riffed with producer Scott Mosier after seeing an ad on Gumtree for free lodging if the lodger was willing to dress up as a walrus. The two extrapolated a twisted plot based on the ad, then gave listeners the option of voting on whether he should make the movie for real by voting #WalrusYes or not by voting #WalrusNo. The votes were overwhelmingly yes.

Smith has always been a great writer, particularly of dialogue although here the dialogue is curiously flat for him. However, he crafts a fast-paced horror comedy that has moments that are genuinely disturbing. Parks, who was memorable as the maniacal Evangelical Christian preacher in Smith’s last film Red State exceeds even that performance with the quiet insanity of one who has been pushed around the bend by a life more harrowing than you or I could ever imagine. Had we lived the life Parks narrates, chances are we’d be all be a bit grumpy at the very least.

Depp, who is listed in the credits as “Guy Lapointe” playing “Guy Lapointe,” has always done well with oddball characters and he allows himself to go over-the-top in a way that is reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow. His daughter Lily, as well as Smith’s daughter Harley, have small roles in this film and reportedly will be the leads on Yoga Hosers, Smith’s next film in his True North trilogy (Smith’s wife Jennifer also makes a brief appearance).

Long is sharp in giving us a thoroughly unlikable character; he’s mean, he cheats on his girlfriend and treats his partner condescendingly. Still, he also manages to elicit some pathos particularly near the movie’s end. It’s a thankless role and Long does it pretty well.

Cinematographer James Laxton does a great job of ramping up the creepy factor in Howe’s mansion and capturing a kind of autumnal feel. And it’s clear that Smith has a great affection for the Great White North even as he occasionally skewers their pronunciation of the word “about” as well as their reputation for politeness.

I describe the movie as “twisted horror” for good reason. Yes, you will see it described as “horror comedy” elsewhere and they’re not wrong, but this has the feel of a cult classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now it is a regular on the midnight madness circuit. Not everything here works but enough of it does to make this a satisfying but strange film that I can recommend to those who have a twisted streak of their own.

REASONS TO GO: Twisted in the right way. Parks is brilliant. Depp gives a whale of a performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is undistinguished, unusual for a Kevin Smith film. Feels rushed.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity, as well as some fairly disturbing violence and gore. There’s also a bit of sexual content as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where to begin? The fictional hockey player Gregory Gumtree that Guy Lapointe refers to is a sly reference to the website where the original ad that caught Smith’s attention was found. Lapointe’s name is itself a reference to a hockey player from the Montreal Canadiens. The framed photo of the dog on Ally’s wall is actually Smith’s dog Shecky. And while the movie is set in Winnipeg, not a single frame was filmed there; it was filmed in North Carolina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Bag of Hammers

Shutter Island


Shutter Island

Ruffalo and di Caprio have wandered from a Scorsese movie into an episode of Tales from the Crypt.

(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, John Carroll Lynch, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Robin Bartlett. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Reality is a very subjective thing. We often see things as we want to see them and not as they truly are. That’s true of all of us to a certain extent, but every one of us usually does that only to a certain extent. When we can’t get past our own self-delusions, we are walking the fine line between sanity and insanity.

United States Marshals Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are on what seems to be a routine assignment. A dangerous prisoner, one Rachel Salondo has disappeared from her cell at the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island, one of the Harbour Islands just off the coast of Boston. Their ferry emerges from the fog and approaches Shutter Island like an earlier freighter approached Skull Island, with palpable menace exuding from every crevice on the island.

They are met at the dock by Deputy Warden McPherson (Lynch) who relieves the marshals of their firearms, which the marshals submit to reluctantly. He escorts them to the main building where they are met by Dr. Cawley (Kingsley), the chief psychiatrist of the facility. Here are the most dangerous lunatics in the Commonwealth, who are so violent that no other hospital can handle them. It is said that there are asylums that have been decommissioned where the horrors of the past seem to live on; you can feel the decades of suffering in the very bricks of the building. Ashecliffe is a lot like that.

It is 1954 and the patients are probably better off in there, safe from the concerns of atom bombs and HUAC witch hunts. Teddy himself is haunted; as a soldier during the War, he helped liberate Dachau and the horrors he witnessed there have driven him to drink. Even worse, his beloved wife Dolores (Williams) died in a fire a few years back.

Teddy realizes early on that the staff is being far from co-operative but he has an agenda of his own. He is looking for a man named Andrew Laeddis (Koteas) who was the man who set the fire that ended his wife’s life. Teddy had followed Laeddis’ trail to the hospital where it disappeared.

From here Teddy realizes that something far more sinister is going on at Shutter Island. A hurricane has further isolated the island and the answers Teddy is looking for are as elusive as driftwood on the tide. To find them, he is going to have to dig deeper; and once he does, he might not like what he finds.

This movie is a serious mindf**k. It is unlike anything Scorsese has done before. There are elements of Hitchcock and film noir in the movie, and certainly turns of gothic horror. I wouldn’t have been overly surprised if Barnabas Collins had stepped out of the shadows of Ward C, where the most dangerous offenders are kept and where Teddy has to go to find Laeddis.

Di Caprio is at his best here, playing the tormented Teddy with grit and just a hint of madness. Teddy is our proxy in the movie and we see the events through his eyes, and Di Caprio makes sure those eyes are wide open and staring. He keeps us off-balance enough to make us susceptible to the twists and turns of the script which is based on a Dennis Lehane novel.

This is a fine cast and Scorsese gets great performances out of nearly all of them. Kingsley does quiet menace like nobody else in the business, and can seem sinister with a dismissive gesture. Von Sydow has a brief but memorable turn as a doctor who may have at one time worked for the Nazis. His verbal sparring session with Teddy is one of the better scenes in the movie.

There are some disturbing images here, and a good deal of male nudity. There is also a score from former member of The Band (and subject of Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz) Robbie Robertson that I think was meant to further put us off-balance but sadly doesn’t succeed; it comes off as intrusive and annoying. I think a subtler approach might have worked better.

I have to admit that some of the scenes here are really tough to watch on an emotional level, but I really don’t want to get into much more detail than that. In fact, the less I tell you about the movie the better you’ll be able to enjoy it. That allows you to experience the full effect of Scorsese’s first venture into the psychological thriller territory that Hitchcock once owned.

This won’t go down as one of Scorsese’s better efforts, although ironically it might wind up being his most profitable. The final scenes are ambiguous and meant to be that way. Some critics have assaulted the ending, but I think its part of Scorsese’s plan to let you draw your own conclusions as to the nature of Teddy’s reality. Certainly it will have you questioning your own perceptions as you leave the theater and that’s pretty impressive on its own.

REASONS TO GO: This movie plays with your head long after the credits roll. Di Caprio does some of the best work of his career. Scorsese conjures up a real air of foreboding.  

REASONS TO STAY: The music was intrusive rather than supporting the overall mood. The building up of Andrew Laeddis as the most dangerous man in the facility doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: Oh my God no. Dear God…what are you thinking? Kids? Shutter Island? NO! Seriously!  NO!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted Levine and Patricia Clarkson starred in the short-lived TV series “Wonderland,” which was also set in a mental institution.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that should be witnessed in the dark, preferably without a huge crowd. Home viewing would be more suitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valentine’s Day