A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

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When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk


A horse as a matter of course.

(2020) War/Sports (Picture Perfect) Sam Gittins, Joe Egan, Jennifer Martin, Chris Simmons, Joel Phillimore, Michael Elkin, Tim Berrington, Jake J. Menlani, Ryan Winsley, Toby Kearton, Antonio Bustorff, Guy Faulkner, Sam Newman, Chris Shipton, Mirsad Solakovic, Sammy Measom, Patrick Capaloff-Fowler, Leo Wherrett, Geir Madland, Adam Braddock, James Haynes, Neale Ricotti. Directed by Ben Mole

From time to time, we’ll watch an old movie and sigh to ourselves “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” On extremely rare occasions, we see a new movie that puts lie to that cliché.

It is 1940 and the British army is being pushed back into the channel, seeking to escape at Dunkirk and facing complete annihilation. A group of soldiers are captured in the countryside of France, including Danny Finnegan (Gittins), who happens to be a world champion boxer. The German commandant, who fancies himself a sportsman, recognizes Danny at once at determines to stage an exhibition match between Danny and one of his men, mainly using the bout as an opportunity to impress his superior officer who also happens to be a boxing fan. Danny is loathe to take part, but eventually relents when one of his buddies is brutally beaten by the man he’ll face in the ring.

In the meantime, the soldiers are aware that the clock is ticking. Soon, they’ll be transported to Germany and where escape will be extremely unlikely. The time to get away is now, with Danny’s bout providing a distraction that will allow them to get to Dunkirk before the entire British army is evacuated, but getting away won’t be so easy. They’ll need help, and there a pretty French farmgirl (Martin) with a grudge against the German commander is their only hope – but it will all be for naught if Danny is unable to stretch the fight out long enough for his mates to get away.

This is an interesting genre mash-up between a war movie that harkens back to some of the contemporaneous “stay calm and fight on” films of the postwar era, and the sports movie that could easily be called Rocky vs. the Nazis. Reading this on paper, I admit it sounds a bit ludicrous but writer-director Ben Mole makes it work.

Gittens, who is best known for a recurring role on the British series EastEnders, has an easy screen presence and carries this low-budget affair on his back, largely. Not all of the supporting cast fares as well, sadly; some accents are known to slip in and out of French and German accents, and a few give some fairly stiff line readings. Given the budget constraints, it’s unlikely there was much time for rehearsal and a likelihood that there is a fairly inexperienced cast behind Gittens.

At times the budget limitations are detrimental – the sound effects of guns firing sound like little pops rather than the bangs we’re used to in the movies, for example, but for the most part, Mole makes good use of what budget he has. I wish he’d taken the time to choreograph the boxing sequences a bit better; they are often unconvincing and one gets the sense that the actors are winging it a bit.

But don’t let that bother you, particularly if you like movies that appeal to the male of the species. This hits two sets of feels for the movie guy, who sometimes gets underserved these days in our zeal to make filmmaking more inclusive – which is a good thing, by the way, but still there’s a need for these types of movies as well. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service if your favorite guy is moping about the house and is in need of an infusion of testosterone, or if you’re someone’s favorite guy and you need it. In that case, treat yourself, by all means.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting mash-up of genres.
REASONS TO AVOID: The boxing sequences occasionally are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both war and boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The battle of Dunkirk took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Victory
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Videogame Story

Summerland


A brief respite before the war.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Dominic McGreevy, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Aoibhine Flynn, Amanda Lawrence, Casper Allpress, Toby Osmond, Joshua Riley, Sally Scott, David Ajao, Nina Beagley, Sian Phillips, Daniel Eghan, Ty Hurley, Marie Hamm. Directed by Jessica Swale

We are increasingly reminded, in these days of pandemic and political divisiveness, that there was a time when everybody was expected to Do Their Bit. People made sacrifices for the greater good. Oh, how times have changed.

Cranky author Alice Lamb (Wilton) despises children. She types away on her “academic treatises” on British and Celtic mythology in her cottage in Kent. However, the Alice of 35 years earlier (Arterton) was….still in the same cottage and still despised children and still typing away at her academic treatises. That’s when Frank (Bond) shows up at her door. He’s an evacuee from London in need of a temporary guardian while his RAF pilot father and Ministry of Defense mother are busy fighting the war, each in their own way. Alice is flummoxed; she had no idea that a kid was coming to live with her but she is gently reminded that she volunteered, even though she doesn’t remember volunteering. In fact, she wants the boy taken somewhere else at once. The authorities promise to look into finding him a place to live, but it will take about a week and she needs to suck it up until then.

Alice is obviously not fond of people in general, and perceptive Frank realizes that there is something that caused this self-imposed solitude. He is not necessarily a brilliant child, but he has a good heart and keen observational powers and soon he begins to thaw out the chilly Miss Lamb, whom is thought to be a witch by the village kids and maybe even a Nazi spy. As such, she is often the butt of childish pranks, which further makes her despise the younger set.

But Frank is so genuine and so willing to please that eventually Alice begins to care for him – so much so that she begins to open up about her past, and the relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that dare not speak its name, but which was nevertheless the love of Alice’s life. Unfortunately, Alice is terribly inexperienced at the whole parenting thing and makes a huge mistake when faced with a terrible situation and ends up making a discovery about the identity of Franks’ mother that will shock her to her very core and nearly lose her relationship with Frank in the bargain.

One of the first things you will notice about the film is the absolutely lovely cinematography of Laurie Rose – although I am of the considered opinion that it is nearly impossible to make an English village look ugly. Nearly every shot is picture perfect, from the wild seaside to the snug interiors to the waving fields of wheat. You may end up considering a vacation to Kent somewhere down the line after seeing this.

The second thing you’ll notice is the strength of the performances here. Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses who seems to always turn in a strong performance but never gets the kind of credit she deserves. She certainly has the talent of an Anne Hathaway or an Emma Stone and those are the sorts of roles and movies she should be getting. It’s a shame that she isn’t. As for veteran Tom Courtenay, I could be perfectly happy of an entire film of him reciting the collected works of William Wordsworth; he’s the kind of actor that you fall in love with each and every performance. He has a small but important role here and he makes the most of it.

The flaw here is that the twist, when it comes late in the movie, is jaw-dropping and not in a good way. It will leave veteran cinema buffs shaking their heads and muttering “Really? You went there? REALLY?!?” However, getting to that point is so enjoyable and so beautiful to watch that at least in my case, I was in a forgiving mood by the end of the film.

Although available on VOD at present, it will be playing at the Florida Film Festival on Saturday, August 8th at 5:45pm at the Enzian. Tickets may be purchased here. It is not a part of the Virtual Festival selections, so if you are planning on only attending the Festival this year by remote viewing, you’ll have to pay the additional rental fees to your streaming platform of choice. It is, however, worth it. For those outside of Florida, it is also playing at selected theaters as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent performances by Arterton and Courtenay in particular. Goes to unexpected places occasionally. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is somewhat preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has no relation to the 2003-2005 TV series of the same name that starred Lori Loughlin, Zac Efron and Ryan Kwanten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77/100, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guernsey Literary and Eel Pie Society
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Apollo 11

The Photographer at Mauthausen (El photógrafo de Mauthausen)


Sometimes a picture is worth a heck of a lot more than a thousand words.

(2018) Biographical Drama (NetflixMario Casas, Richard von Weyden, Alain Hernandez, Adriá Salazar, Eduard Buch, Stefan Weinert, Nikola Stojanovic, Rubén Yuste, Frank Feys, Marc Rodriguez, Albert Mora, Joan Negrié, Luka Peros, Rainer Reiners, Toni Gomila, Macarena Gómez, Emilio Gavira, Soma Zámbron, Erik Gyarmati, Marta Holler. Directed by Mar Targarona

 

Most movies about the Holocaust concentrate on the Jewish victims, which is as it should be. However, they weren’t the only victims. Early in the war, as Nazi Germany overran France, Spanish Republicans who had fled the victorious forces of Franco, were declared “stateless” by the Spanish government, allowing the Nazis to round them up and stick them in concentration camps, which they largely helped build – such as the one called Mauthausen in Austria.

Francesc Boix (Casas) was a member of the Spanish communist party sent to Mauthausen. A Catalan by birth (a region of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital), he managed to get attached to the photography unit under Ricken (von Weyden), one of those German officers obsessed with documenting everything, including the horrors.

At first, Boix uses his position to help switch the identification numbers of dead men with living men, in order to save the living, but as he is called upon to witness summary executions, mass graves, torture, forced prostitution and all manner of depravity, he is sickened. As word begins to reach the prisoners that the tide of the war has turned, Boix realizes that the evidence so meticulously gathered by the Germans would doubtlessly be destroyed – and those who had perpetrated these horrors would therefore get away with their crimes. He was determined to not let that happen.

Most concentration camp movies tend to be set in the more notorious camps in Eastern Europe. Most Americans are unfamiliar with Mauthausen, although the Spanish people know it well. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty standard Holocaust movie with gut-wrenching depictions of inhumanity and some instances of extraordinary heroism. Targarona uses the actual photographs taken by Boix and Ricken to choreograph his scenes, which we come to realize as the actual photographs are shown at the end of the film.

Like most Holocaust films, there are moments that will hit you like a punch to the gut. It isn’t always an easy film to watch, again like most Holocaust films. But particularly now with the rise of authoritarian leaders all over the globe, it is particularly necessary that we remind ourselves how easily we can fall into the same morass that the German people did in 1937. “Never again” doesn’t seem like such a sure thing in 2020.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some pretty powerful moments. Shows a side of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe that hasn’t been seen often.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much like other films depicting life in concentration camps.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, nudity, violence, disturbing images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Lejias can’t speak German. In reality, the actor who played him (Joan Negrié) speaks fluent German, the only Spanish actor in the cast to do so.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rental

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot


Sam Elliott has the ultimate American face.

(2018) Drama (RLJESam Elliott, Aidan Turner, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Ron Livingston, Sean Bridgers, Larry Miller, Ellar Coltrane, Rizwan Manji, Mark Steger, Anastasia Tsikhanava, Kristin Anne Ferraro, Kelley Curran, Nikolai Tsankov, Alton Fitzgerald White, David Armstrong, Rob Levesque, Rocco Gioffre, Harold Rudolph, Joe Lucas, Mark Lund, Melissa Jalali. Directed by Robert D. Kryzkowski

 

Sometimes a movie title will give you one expectation and the film deliver a totally different experience, one that’s unexpected and maybe even welcome. Sometimes, you have to be receptive to a curveball in this business.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is such a movie. From the oddball title, one might expect a quirky action film with comedic elements a la Tarantino. And there is some of that in here, make no mistake, but the film isn’t played for laughs at all. The tone is bittersweet, which caught me by surprise and then, delight.

Sam Elliott, he of America’s most iconic moustache, plays Cavin Barr, a haunted man living alone in a small town with his dog, propping a bar from time to time. Nobody really knows him, except for maybe his brother Ed (Miller). He hides a secret; as a young man (Turner) during the War, he was a special forces operative who assassinated Hitler. However the war continued on as the Nazis put a look-alike in charge and their ideology survived. Elliott’s risky assignment accomplished nothing, and cost him the girl he wanted to marry (Fitzgerald).

He is sought out by a government agent (Livingston) who asks him to take one last assignment; to kill the Bigfoot (Steger) who is carrying a deadly plague that could conceivably wipe out mankind. Calvin himself is apparently immune. Calvin at first is uninterested; “I am done with killing, man or beast,” he proclaims laconically. However, the chance to finally matter, to put the ghosts of his past to rest prove to be too much so to the Pacific Northwest he goes.

Much of the movie is about Calvin’s regrets and in that sense, Elliott is perfectly cast; he has a naturally world-weary face and that gravelly drawl reinforces it. Elliott gives one of his finest performances ever here which is saying something, but matching it is Miler as his brother Ed, which is saying something quite different.

The Pacific Northwest cinematography is lovely as you might expect, although the Bigfoot make-up is decidedly unconvincing. The last third of the film is almost a survivalist thriller as Bigfoot and Calvin go mano a mano in the woods. The title is a bit of a spoiler though, although the ending has a note of grace that I admired. Director and writer Kryzkowski has quite a bit of talent, although he might want to have someone else come up with a title in the future. Still, this is a solid picture and any opportunity to see Sam Elliott at work is a worthwhile endeavor, in my book.

REASONS TO SEE: Elliott and Miller are both perfectly cast. I liked the melancholy tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The Bigfoot makeup is pretty lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner and Fitzgerald’s onscreen romance led to an offscreen romance after filming was completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inglorious Basterds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Disclosure (2020)

Return to Hardwick


How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

(2019) Documentary (Gravitas) Michael Cudlitz (narrator), John Marx, Sherman Alpert (voice), George Jung, Raymond Eck, Leland Spencer, Gail Mailloux, Reed Phillips, Libby Morgan, Glenn Martin, Colin Mann, Roger Barker, Sheralee Barker, Floyd L. Carpenter, Laura Mesrobian (voice), Christopher Rice, James Root, Vernon Swaim, Karyn Senatore. Directed by Michael Sellers

 

They are called the Greatest Generation for a reason. They sacrificed, putting their lives and their comfort on the line to fight true evil. And they triumphed.

Now, they are old and slowly fading away and their memories of the Second World War with them. Daytime Emmy Award nominee Michael Sellers’ grandfather fought with the 93rd Bomber Group of the 8th Air Force, mainly based at Hardwick Air Base near Norwich in East Anglia, Great Britain. What had once been an air base is now mainly a potato farm. The few buildings that remain are in surprisingly good shape, although they too are beginning to crumble.

Those who live nearby, as well as the children and grandchildren of those who flew nearly 400 missions from there (more than any other group in the 8th Air Force) had formed an association to foster reunions and trips to visit their old haunts in Norwich and Hardwick. Local townspeople feel a real sense of gratitude to the group, who helped turn the tide of the war. They have done what they can to preserve what is left and put together a museum dedicated to the 93rd.

At one of those reunions, Sellers got the idea to make a documentary but rather than capture the stories of those who actually served, he concentrates on three children of those who served there – George Jung, whose father (a navigator) died when he was young, so he never really got to hear about what his father experienced in the war; Gail Mailloux, whose mother and father (who have since passed away) met at Hardwick and got married there, and finally John Marx, whose Uncle had died in a plane crash on the air base. So little information had made it to the family about what happened that Marx has spent years trying to piece things together.

Utilizing archival footage, still photographs and interviews with the veterans, their descendants as well as those who live in the area, to make a mostly fascinating documentary that focuses not so much on the big picture of the war, but on a particular unit involved with it. This really hasn’t been done before except for maybe with the Tuskegee Airmen, but it’s a good idea and should be repeated with other units that served in the War.

The only real quibble I have is that at times the narrative is a bit disjointed and done in kind of a scattershot fashion, jumping from story to story and into different time periods of the war. There is some context so you have an idea of the major events that the group was involved with but that is a relatively minor quibble. For history buffs, particularly those enamored of military history, this is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Interesting stories from the vets, as well as some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Produced with the aid of the 93rd Bombardment Group Association, which puts together the reunions and trips back to Hardwick for surviving veterans, promotes keeping the history of the Bomb Group alive, and gives the veterans and their families a means to keep in touch with one another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Miss Bala (2019)

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

Bombshells and Dollies


Thank heaven for pin-up girls.

(2019) Documentary (Tri-Coast Worldwide)  Raquel Perez, Pinup Little Bit, Tom Ingram, Dita von Teese, Ivy Fox, Cherry Dollface, Brittany Jean, Miss Victory Violet, Lulu Devine, The Blue-Haired Betty, Marilia Skraba, Lisa Love, Angie Honeyburst, Ruby Red, Dixie Delight, Ginger Watson, Angelique Noire, Bo Huff, Hell Cath, Bernie Dexter, Shannon Brooke.  Directed by Daniel Halperin

 

When you think of pin-ups, you likely think of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth; of pictures painted on the nose of bombers during World War II. You might even think of the artwork of Antonio Vargas.

]The art of the pin-up is not just for the Greatest Generation anymore. Once used as inspiration, to remind soldiers, sailors and airmen what they were fighting for back home, the art-form has undertaken a resurrection. Today, it is an expression of individuality as well as a celebration of feminine curves. They aren’t centerfolds however while undeniably sexy, it is a modest sexiness that shows enough cleavage and leg to be alluring but never tawdry. Generally in vintage fashions wearing the kind of heavy make-up that was popular in the 40s and 50s, modern pin-ups recreate the simple charm of those wholesome but undeniably sexy women. One of the best-known modern pin-up models, Dita von Teese, makes an appearance explaining how she got into the artform.

It is therefore not surprising that rockabilly culture has embraced the pin-up. Rockabilly, for those unaware of the musical form, was first popularized by Sun Records back in the 50s and counted Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins among its earliest stars. The form underwent a revival in the 80s with bands like the Stray Cats, the Blasters and the Kingpins leading the way. Today, it remains a cultural phenomenon with a thriving underground scene throughout the world.

Viva Las Vegas is the largest rockabilly festival in the world, with tens of thousands descending on the Orleans Hotel off the Vegas strip to celebrate the cars, the tattoos, the fashion and the music. A pin-up contest seemed like a natural addition and was suggested by renowned pin-up model Rockwell de Vil (real name: Raquel Perez) to festival founder Tom Ingram. It has become one of the most popular aspects of the festival since.

A panel of judges selects four finalists; a fifth is selected by the entrants. The remaining seven finalists are selected by Internet vote. The finalists are brought to the festival from all over North America and the world; in 2018, finalists represented the United States, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Entrants also came from Italy, Russia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and many other countries.

The women who enter are nothing like you probably expect them to be. They come from all walks of life. Several are married with children; others are gay. The entrants have a variety of ethnic backgrounds and body types; many have been the victims of body shaming while others have gotten grief for their perceived anti-feminism. The truth be told, these ladies are the ultimate expressions of feminism; they choose to celebrate their beauty as well as their intellectual abilities and their competency in other fields. These ladies have causes, from the plight of veterans to support for suicide hotlines (one contestant lost two brothers to suicide), animal rights and other community causes. Many of the models donate their time and effort to charity.

The film is partially a celebration of pin-up culture, although it is given only a kind of cursory background which mainly concentrates on its beginning during the Second World War and doesn’t really trace its evolution. What the film is primarily, however, is a competition documentary and in that sense it is fairly typical for the genre; we get to know the contestants and then wait with anticipation as the winners for the 2018 contest are announced. Undoubtedly you will have your favorites – I know I did although I won’t tell you who all of them are. I will tell you that I was particularly fond of African-American model Pinup Little Bit, who is a wife and mom and who looks to mainstream model (and sometimes pinup) Angelina Noire as a role model. I think once you see this film you’ll agree that Pinup Little Bit is a role model herself.

One of the things I liked best about the documentary was the way that the contestants bonded. While there is a certain amount of competitiveness among them, they all realize that they are part of a subculture that is often misunderstood and many of them talk about inventing a persona of a pin-up model which they adopt once the make-up goes on. It’s actually kind of a nice thing to see. There’s also a nice little coda at the end of the film that I really appreciated, and I suspect you will too.

In fact, all of the women here are. They all have their own reasons for squeezing into the vintage dresses, putting on the lipstick and getting that Victory Wave in their hair but all of them are unforgettable. I would have preferred to see a little more context for the whole pin-up culture – it’s not just for rockabilly, kids – but the documentary is reasonably fascinating and the fact that we’re talking about some truly beautiful women doesn’t hurt either.

REASONS TO SEE: Treats the women with respect.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fairly typical contest doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pendleton and Ailes attended grade school together.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Blood and Money

Lancaster Skies


Bombers fill the night of Lancaster skies.

(2019) War (Shout! FactoryJeffrey Mundell, David Dobson, Kris Saddler, Joanne Gale, Vin Hawke, Steve Hooper, Josh Collins, Callum Burn, Steven Hooper, Tom Gordon, Henry Collie, Tony Gordon, Leila Sykes, Eric Flynn, Roger Wentworth, Oria Sanders, Fiona Kimberley, Matt Davies, Bridgette Burn, Elliott Strother, Bryony James, Robert Francis, Tina Hodgson. Directed by Callum Burn

 

I take no joy out of writing a negative review. I know that most people go into making a movie with the best intentions, but things happen – sometimes there’s studio interference, sometimes the cast and crew are inexperienced, other times things just don’t click for whatever reason. I understand that there are human beings behind every movie, some having put all their passion into a project that for whatever reason just didn’t click with me; and that’s not on them so much as it is on me.

Once in a while, though, it is clear that a filmmaker’s reach exceeded his grasp. He or she perhaps had a good story and a decent cast, but budget limitations kept him/her from making the movie they wanted to make. I suspect that’s the problem here.

Lancaster Skies is meant to be a World War II epic about an English bomber crew dealing with the loss of their skipper (Tom Gordon). They are having to cope with the death of a comrade-in-arms, but also the arrival of their new captain, Douglas Miller (Mundell), who is dealing with a tragedy of his own and has become closed-off, stand-offish and generally a bit of a pill. At first, he is oil and water with the veteran crew. Only co-pilot Georgie Williams (Dobson) seems to be friendly towards him at all – well, there’s always comely WAAF Kate Hedges (Gale) who has taken a shine to the handsome but taciturn Miller.

Miller, a former Spitfire pilot, is chomping at the bit to take the fight to the Germans. With the survival rate of bomber crews right around 50% (Williams illustrates that in a bar brawl by flipping a coin a la Harvey Dent), this would seem to be on the surface a little crazy, but slowly Douglas begins to warm up to his crew and they to him. But, at last, they’ve finally gotten a mission to fly. With a tail gunner (Saddler) prone to freezing up at the worst possible moment, and a co-pilot with a devastating secret of his own, this crew will need to pull together if they are to survive their next mission.

I don’t really know how to begin to sort this all out. It is simply poorly done on every level. On a technical level, the color fades into almost black and white but I believe is just washed out color. It does so without warning and goes from color to washed out within even the same screen. I’m not technically proficient enough to identify whether it was a camera thing, a processing thing or a digital thing, but I can say for certain that it was an annoying thing.

The only thing stiffer than the dialogue is the actors saying it; if their upper lips were any stiffer, they would have been shot up full of Novocain. There are a lot of characters in the film and I couldn’t always differentiate between them. At length, I just gave up.

I could go on, but I think that for now, that’s enough. I do give director Callum Burn props for having the moxie to try and make a movie of this scope on a budget that was right around £80,000 – a microscopic amount compared to even most independent films. The movie wasn’t completely without merit and it is a story that deserves to be told, but perhaps Burn should have waited until he could get himself a budget to tell the story properly.

REASONS TO SEE: The title is evocative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff characters and even stiffer dialogue. Inexplicably drops in and out of color.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in five different shooting blocks over a two-year period.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memphis Belle
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Jinn (2018)

Capital in the 21st Century


The geometrics of poverty.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberThomas Piketty, Kate Williams, Suresh Naidu, Bryce Edwards, Rana Foroohar, Joseph Stiglitz, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama, Lucas Chancel, Faiza Shaheen, Paul Mason, Simon Johnson, Paul Piff, Gabriel Zucman, Gillian Tett. Directed by Justin Pemberton

 

Okay. So it’s not exactly news that there is a massive disparity between haves and have-nots in this country, and the middle class – once the backbone of American prosperity – has been shrinking at an alarming rate until, now, it barely exists. In this country, to quote Midnight Oil, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

And in case they haven’t, economist Thomas Piketty presents it very clearly for them hear. Base on his bestselling book which may be the biggest selling economics book since Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, the book and the movie it is based on explains why the rich get richer and how the deck is stacked against the rest of us. It is a moment in time where that has been displayed clearly by the coronavirus; it infects everybody regardless of the size of their bankbook, but the poor, who haven’t been able to afford decent health care, have been hit disparately harder than the wealthy.

Piketty warns that the conditions that gave rise to Marxism are returning again, with a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, social mobility becoming nearly impossible and nationalism and fascism both on the rise. The baby boomers may be the last generation to reasonably expect to have a better life than their parents; it is nearly impossible to do now – unless you are part of the one percent.

Piketty leads a parade of economists, historians and sociologists in interviews that show how the privileged classes manipulated the hearts and minds of the poor, demonizing any sort of program that would actually help them – including breeding a mistrust of education – and creating a stigma over any social program, linking it with the dreaded socialism *shudder* which is, of course, anti-American, right? Welllllllll…

New Zealand-based director Pemberton laces the film with plenty of pop culture references, from a hit song by Lorde to clips from The Grapes of Wrath and Elysium. In one of the more fascinating sequences, UC Irvine professor Paul Piff details an experiment in which two students were randomly selected to play Monopoly. A roll of the dice gave one player the role of the rich player, and the other the poor player. The rich player was given hella advantages, including more cash to begin with, the ability to roll two dice at a time (the poor player could only roll one) and more income every time they passed Go ($200 to the poor player’s $100). An interesting thing happened; the rich players grew arrogant and cocky, attributing success to superior game play rather than the nearly insurmountable advantages they were given. Gordon Gekko opined that greed is good and maybe it is (although evidence says no), but it is certainly ingrained in nearly all of us.

While there are some solutions offered – many of which were put forth by Elizabeth Warren during her Presidential campaign last year – they are unlikely to be enacted by politicians who are largely in the pocket of the super-rich. I would have liked to have seen the same kind of analysis given to the solutions as there was to the problems, which aren’t exactly breaking news. For those who believe that the rich are superior to those who don’t have money, there is the specter of the French Revolution – which is what happens when people have nothing to lose. We are rapidly getting to that point not only here in America but all over the world. Those who refuse to learn from history, after all, are doomed to repeat it, often to their great regret.

The movie is currently available through Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema program which benefits local art houses. Although the Enzian currently isn’t one of them, Floridians wishing to check out the movie and benefit local art houses have four to choose from; the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, the Coral Gables Art House in Miami and the Tropic Cinema in Key West. Click on the picture for more information.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly sober explanation of how we got to where we are.
REASONS TO AVOID: There isn’t a lot of analysis of where we go from here.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely not for the young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Piketty, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freakanomics
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Darling Vivian