After I saw the new film A Call to Spy I regretted having watched it without my friend Jen. She’s a huge history buff and will really enjoy this film. I guess I will just have to see it again with her :).
A Call to Spy tells the true story of 3 women who worked as spies in Churchill’s Secret Army. One of these women is an American named Virginia Hall and she is a woman with a wooden leg who after being denied a job as a diplomat becomes a spy instead. 1 in 3 of these spies lost their lives. It’s harrowing stuff!
Hall is played by Sarah Megan Thomas and she also wrote the film and pushed it into fruition so I give her a ton of credit. The production is handsomely mounted and well acted. It’s an interesting story and for the most part I enjoyed watching it. I kind of wish they had gotten an actress with one leg to play the role but Thomas was very convincing (at least from my POV as an able-bodied viewer.)
On one hand, I can see some calling A Call to Spy a workmanlike or by-the-numbers type of film, and they would be right. There’s nothing particularly creative or unique about it. However, I really enjoyed learning about these 3 women. Their stories are remarkable, and it’s sad that it took me until my 39th year to learn about them. In this case, teaching me about history with a slick and well made production is all they needed to do, and they did it well.
It’s probably too intense for most kids unless they are used to watching a lot of war films (torture, murder and other Nazi behaviors are shown but it is also PG13).
If I am going to fault the film it is a little bit too long at 123 minutes, and we go too long in-between seeing some of the women. It’s supposed to be all 3 women’s stories but particularly the Muslim spy Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) gets the short end of the stick. I would have liked to have seen more of her and gotten into her head better.
Still, A Call to Spy is an inspirational true story I knew nothing about before seeing it, so I’m glad I watched it. It’s well made and acted and I’d definitely recommend it.
I believe it will be in theaters and then go to streaming so let me know what you think if you see it.
Over at Backseatdirectors.com recently I wrote a review of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film The Truth. It is what I call a ‘slice of life’ film or in other words ‘a film that follows a character around without much plot or story’. In that review I said “It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters.” I bring this up in my Nomandland review because it is also a slice of life film. And like The Truth, I enjoyed spending time with these characters (or character) but just enough to recommend it. I did not love it like I loved The Truth.
Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, and I am curious to read the book. The strongest part of the film is the empathy it has for all of the people and the lack of judgement of their life choices. It’s also beautifully filmed with lovely cinematography by Joshua James Richards. He also shot director Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider, and it had a similar empathy towards its characters, which I admired.
In the film Frances McDormand plays a woman named Fern who is a nomad that wanders in her van from job to job. She eventually becomes a part of a community of nomads (real people not actors mostly featured as the nomads). That’s really all the plot there is. It’s just following her around, seeing her life, which is fine. She’s a compelling enough character to make the film worth a watch.
Unfortunately I couldn’t keep myself from asking a few questions (that maybe are explained in the book but that’s not what this review is based on). It seems unlikely that a single woman alone in a van would be so protected from predators and bad men. But never once in the film is that a problem? Maybe I’m too nervous as a single woman myself but there was no seedy side at all? No drugs, theft, or anything else unkempt.
And it’s not like challenging people makes a film less empathetic. For example, director Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Petewas very realistic in showing the good and the bad side of the Heartland of America and it only made me more invested as he struggled.
On one hand, I admire Zhao’s optimism in not portraying these dark sides but on the other hand it makes the movie very repetitive and not as interesting as it could have been. In Lean on Pete I was sobbing by the end of it because Pete had overcome so much to get to safety. In Nomadland I felt relief and comfort but not much emotional investment in Fern’s story. It was beautiful but would have probably worked better as a short than a feature.
I’m still going to give Nomadland a recommendation but I’d say to moderate your expectations. Some are calling it the ‘best film of the year’, and I’m not in that camp. Still it’s beautiful enough with a strong enough performance from McDormand to be worth a view. If you see it let me know what you think.
7 out of 10
I saw Nomadland through the NYFF Virtual Film Center at Lincoln Center. I recommend checking them out and supporting independent cinema if you can.
Hey everyone! I hope you are doing well (or at least as well as can be expected during this crazy time). I have certainly been hard at work both watching and creating content. I am so blessed to be able to do what I do.
While I would love to be a full time critic I am extremely blessed to be able to write/create my reviews and be a part-time corporate blogger for the rest of my job. However I don’t only post to this site. Recently I have reviewed:
With that out of the way let’s share some mini reviews!
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
Fans of the Food Network and Top Chef will enjoy this documentary that follows famed chef Yotam Ottolenghi as he puts on an event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of Versailles. Ottolenghi assembles his crackpot team of eccentric bakers and jello-makers (yes you read right) and their artistic process is fascinating and a lot of fun to watch. I particularly liked chef Dinara Kasko as she fights for her pastry vision from a pushy man who wants her to take the easy way out.
Where Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles doesn’t work as well is in the final act change in messaging. It feels tagged on after so much excess and opulence the entire movie to all the sudden have a social conscience. Not everything has to have a message or speak to the injustices of our time. It’s fine to have one documentary that is just about escapist cakes. No more.
Still it’s a fun movie and available in theaters and on demand.
6 out of 10
Give or Take
One trend I’ve noticed over the last few years is lots of movies about the male experience and in particular unlikely male friendships. Whether it be an Oscar winner like Green Bookor smaller films like To Dust or Papi Chulo we seem to be fascinated as a culture with men and their friendships. Now we have the latest in this trend with the indie film Give or Take and for the most part it works quite well.
Give or Take tells the story of an estranged son (Jamie Effros) who comes home to bury his father and struggles to get along with his father’s spouse Ted (Norbert Leo Butz- who I’ve enjoyed since his Broadway days and they almost let him sing in this!). The film explores themes of forgiveness, loss and what moving on means. The comic relief from people like Cheri Oteri is less effective and the relationship between Martin and his former flame Emma (Joanne Tucker) didn’t really work for me. Still, if you are up for a small, low budget drama it’s worth a watch.
6.5 out of 10
Stars and Strife
With the current political climate being a continual cess pool of despair and depravity I was honestly quite hesitant to watch the new documentary Stars and Strife. Political documentaries very easily veer into the propaganda camp and are more for building up the ideology of the ardent believers than for making persuasive arguments.
Well, color me shocked when Stars and Strife actually turned out to be a hopeful film examining our current condition and how we might be able to dig our way out. It might be too optimistic for some people but in this day and age I will take a little hope where I can get it. It’s also very even-handed with people who worked in Bush and Obama administrations weighing in. This film is available on STARZ and to rent VOD.
7 out of 10
The Human Voice
Right now as part of the New York Film Festival you can have a special film festival type experience right from your own laptop. The great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has made a one-woman short with Tilda Swinton during quarantine and it’s a delight to watch. In addition, with your purchase you get an interview with Swinton and Almodóvar, which includes a passionate speech from the director about getting back to the big screen experience as soon as we possibly can.
The short The Human Voice is ”freely based” on the Jean Cocteau play La voix humaine and is about a woman waiting for her ex to pick up his things and dog in their apartment but he never comes. Both the dog and woman are abandoned and angry yet it is very fun to watch. I love the way Almodóvar uses color and Swinton is fantastic. It captures the sense of isolation we’ve all been feeling lately and is definitely cathartic to watch.
8 out of 10
4 movies today all smile worthy! I love when that happens. What have you been watching? Any recommendations?
I’ll be honest when I put Apocalypse Now on my blind spot for 2020 I did so with hesitation. I knew it was a hard R rating and a long war film so it didn’t sound like something I would love. As we got closer to the watch in September my hesitancy increased as it seemed like a big downer to watch in quarantine.
Well yesterday I had terrible insomnia so decided to finally watch it and to my surprise I found it quite exhilarating. To be sure it is long (I watched the theatrical cut) and brutal but the characters are so well realized and the story so surprising that it really worked well. I see why it is considered one of the great films of the 1970s.
If you didn’t know Apocalypse Now is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Martin Sheen as an army captain given a secret mission in the Vietnam War to go into Cambodia and kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). He is given assistance along the way by a PBR or river patrol boat which includes an assortment of characters such as Chef (Frederic Forrest), The Chief (Albert Hall), and Lance B Johnson (Sam Bottoms. He is a professional surfer in the movie).
They also meet people like a hippy journalist played by Dennis Hopper and an insane war-hungry Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall). His character is a morally repugnant man who cares more for surfing and the wins of war than human life but it’s such a big performance I found myself transfixed by it. Of course, he has the iconic line of the film ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’. And the crazy thing is he actually does love it. That’s nuts but also compelling.
The movie takes a long time to get to Colonel Kurtz but the wait is worthwhile. Brando was evidently quite the diva by this time in the 70s but somehow that aloofness and pride works well for the character. The final scene with the butchering of the water buffalo and the assault on Kurtz is riveting and tense.
It probably goes without saying but the production values of Apocalypse Now are absolutely outstanding. The sound design alone by Walter Murch was a game changer. The editing is great. The spectacle of the battles and use of color throughout the cinematography is incredible. All the acting is top notch.
As far as flaws there is a moral ambiguity about war which some might question. These days we want everything to make a statement but Apocalypse Now could easily be criticized as being both pro and anti war. This no doubt reflected the divided nature of the country in 1979 (what it must have been like to watch the film in 1979 is incredible to think about). I kind of like that it is open to interpretation but some may see it as a cop-out.
This might be a weird comparison but Apocalypse Now reminded me of another epic Lawrence of Arabia. Different time periods obviously but they both have large scale spectacle filmmaking mixed with unique characters that transfixed me. I love Lawrence of Arabia more but still both movies lived up to their respective hypes in my opinion.
What do you think about Apocalypse Now? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.
Slice of life movies are always a tricky venture. By their very description they are low on plot,high on characters. The idea is we as viewers relate to the day-to-day goings on of our characters and this closeness to our own lives inspires an emotion out of us. It moves us to see a version of ourselves on screen and this mirror gives us insight into our choices and lives. However, when slice of life films don’t work they are just people and the characters are not strong enough to give us needed insight. Such is the problem with Sean Durkin’s new film The Nest. The film is getting heaps of praise from other critics but I found it to be an underwhelming experience.
The Nest tells the story of a dysfunctional family in the 80s that moves to London so the husband (Jude Law) can make it in financing like he has been unable to do in the US. His wife (Carrie Coon) begrudgingly moves with him, along with her fitful horse, and 2 children. As they live in England, their marriage goes downhill quickly as he proves to be a terrible businessman. The girl throws a party. The horse has issues and that’s it.
Maybe my being single doesn’t allow me to get the deep meaning in the marital conflict? That is possible but when you compare this with something like 45 Yearswhich is also about a struggling marriage, with partners failing to communicate, there is no comparison. I am not very familiar with Coon but her performance didn’t work. The Nest screams for a Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine type performance but doesn’t deliver it. Again, if the story isn’t going to draw us in the characters need to and these do not.
Law does more but is stuck in a basic role we’ve seen a million times and done with far more gravitas in other films. I felt no emotion with his character- neither anger nor sympathy. The daughter throws a party but that is quickly done away with and not taken seriously by the script. I could say that for all the characters including the horse! It’s all surface-level. It all looks pretty with nice production design and cinematography but the characters and story are very bland.
Others seem to be enjoying The Nest more than I did so by all means give it a watch and decide for yourself. It did nothing for me, and I cannot recommend it. Let me know what you think.
It’s always a tricky thing turning a celebrated stage play into a movie. It can be very successful like Amadeus or A Man for All Seasons. Other times it doesn’t carry over well like with August Osage County or marginally so with Fences. There is something about the monologuing and cadence a play needs to be successful which can feel awkward and inauthentic in a film.
The new film One Night in Miami doesn’t totally escape these problems. There are times it feels stagey and the dialogue is clinical rather than the natural discourse of friends. However, the performances are strong enough and the true moments true enough to rise above these problems.
The film tells a fictionalized story of real-life icons Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke as they meet for one night following the first championship fight of Clay over Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. Each man has a different perspective on life, race, publicity, work and the Civil Rights Movement, and none are shy about sharing their views with each other.
Again, sometimes this dialogue can feel stagey or like they are talking to the audience more than their friends in the room. However, the performances are so charismatic that it draws you in anyway. I particularly liked the interchanges between Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Leslie Odom Jr as singer Sam Cooke. They have different perspectives about when to speak out and when to play along, and they both make good points that ring true today.
The filmmaking in One Night in Miami, by first time director Regina King, is appropriately minimal. Most of the film is set in a hotel room with the 4 men talking. You get brief glimpses of Clay fighting, Cooke singing, Malcolm calling his family etc but for the most part it stays true to the origins of the play. This works quite well as nothing on screen distracts you from the performances.
Currently the film is premiering at the Venice Film Festival (the first film directed by an African-American woman to be selected in the festivals history, which is insane it took this long!). I saw it virtually through the Toronto International Film Festival but it will be coming to Amazon Prime and I definitely think it is worth a watch especially for the performances.
When American Sniper became a huge hit in 2014/2015 Hollywood realized that the conservative market could support more edgy R rated films than the squeaky clean variety they had previously been served (along with Passion of the Christ but that was more avertly religious than American Sniper). Since then I have noticed a number of overtly Christian films that are decidedly R rated and yet it still catches me off guard. I guess it is something I just have to get used to! The latest is a film by director Cyrus Nowrasteh called Infidel. It’s a bit of a mixed bag but overall if the topic interests you I think it is worth a watch.
Infidel stars Jim Caviezel in inspired by true events of the kidnapping and imprisonment of former FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran in 2007. His character’s name in the movie is Doug Rawlins and to start with he goes to Cairo to give a speech. While there he is kidnapped and his wife (Claudia Karvan) is left to try and rescue him.
The first part of Infidel with Doug speaking and getting over to Cairo is very clunky, and I thought for sure I was going frown-worthy on it. However, once the movie gets into full rescue mode it became a lot more palatable. If you like movies like Taken you might have fun with this film.
All the performances are good. I particularly liked Claudia Karvan as Doug’s wife. She’s not your typical upset wife waiting at home nor is she the kick butt action hero. Just a strong capable woman who gets things done. Caviezel is also good especially when he is in more prisoner vs preacher mode.
I don’t know what Christian audiences will think of Infidel? It is violent and has its share of F-bombs so I know that will turn away some people of faith. However, it is based on a true story and the action is exciting, so it has its appeal. Nevertheless, It’s a weird mixture but I was entertained enough to recommend it. It’s going to be playing in 1500-1700 theaters starting this weekend so if you get a chance to see it let me know what you think.
Hey everyone! I’ve got some more mini reviews for you of films I’ve been seeing over the last few weeks. I have certainly been extremely busy with content to make and movies to watch and it’s not even Christmas yet!
Lapsis is a film I saw as part of the virtual Fantasia Film Festival 2020. It is a very interesting sci-fi film starring Dean Imperial as a man in future dystopian-like world who is desperate for work. His brother is sick and the bills are piling up so he decides to get a job laying cable for a giant corporation. As he embarks on an Appalachian trail type odyssey he grows to realize the reach of the company is bigger and stronger than he ever imagined including little robots he must compete with who are also laying down cable along with the humans.
As you can tell this film has an intriguing premise and for the most part I enjoyed it. The only major flaw with it is the ending is very abrupt. It feels like they ran out of funding and couldn’t finish the movie. Up until then I was really digging the strange take on work in the gig economy. Still there is enough good before the ending for me to recommend giving Lapsis a shot.
6 out of 10
Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe
I am only minimally familiar with the Phineas and Ferb program. I’ve watched a few episodes here and there and recently tried to get caught up with mos the first season. From what I’ve seen it’s a delightful show with a nice sense of humor and playful character designs.
Recently they released a new movie based on the show called Phineas and Ferb the Movie Candace Against the Universe. Despite my lack of familiarity with the characters I really enjoyed this movie. It had a lot of humor that worked, a playful sense of whimsy and as someone with 2 brothers a character in Candace I can definitely relate with. I didn’t feel confused as a non-watcher of the show. The animation is bright and colorful and the music is catchy. Your kids will love it.
7 out of 10
The Blech Effect
The Blech Effect is a documentary that tells the story of investor David Blech as he is about to go to prison for investors fraud. It was for the most part a fine documentary and it is interesting to see the preparation that goes into someone getting ready for a correctional institution. At one point they even have a prison consultant who’s assigned to tell David what the first day of prison life will be like.
The aspect I didn’t like is them painting him as a victim of the system. In particular the repeated use of his young autistic son as a reason to spare him punishment. I am sure raising a son with autism has its challenges but it’s not an excuse for committing crimes or a reason for leniency.
4 out of 10
The Lost Husband
On the surface The Lost Husband looks like a Nicholas Spark-like narrative with our heroine getting back to her roots while overcoming grief. Unfortunately it is missing key aspects that make those movies, sappy as they might, work.
The film stars Leslie Bibb as a widow who moves into a farmhouse with her aunt Jean (Nora Dunn). Farm living proves to be therapeutic for the city girl especially with hunky farm aid played by Josh Duhamel. The problem is the romance is barely developed and the big reveal does not pay off. It makes the entire film very bland and boring where it could have been good.
3 out of 10
When I finished watching the new drama Shooting Heroin I was left more than a little befuddled. The very dark film about a group of citizens that take back their small town from the ravages of addiction has the feel of a faith-based films but then it is loaded with f-bombs, drug abuse and violence. I can’t help but think who was this made for?
The story of the film revolves around Adam (Alan Powell), Hazel (Sherilyn Fenn) and Edward (Lawrence Hilton- Jacobs). All have lost loved ones to opioid addiction and they all do a good job with their performances. Addiction is a horrible blight on humanity and it impacts every family sooner or later. It took 2 of my cousins. So I was with this movie as far as messaging but the tonal shifts didn’t work. It’s not awful but just messy.
Being the founder of The Hallmarkies Podcast many of you probably assume I am going to love a movie called The Broken Hearts Gallery just by the name alone. Well, you would be wrong. Just read my review for Desperados and you will quickly see I do not give all romcoms a pass. In fact, what I enjoyed the most about The Broken Hearts Gallery wasn’t the romance at all; although it was very sweet and enjoyable. My favorite part of the film is the friendships it depicts. It showcases the best kind of sisterhood that especially thrives in your post-college years and in the age of quarantine I miss a lot (I haven’t even been able to attend book club in person for months. Sad face).
The Broken Hearts Gallery stars Geraldine Viswanathan (who I loved already this year in Bad Education,so she’s rapidly becoming a favorite) as woman named Lucy (that’s such a romcom name). In our opening scenes she is dumped by her boyfriend in a very public fashion and she does not handle things well. Luckily she has her very forgiving and eclectic roommates to help her grieve. Molly Gordon plays roommate Amanda who is married to the mute Jeff and Phillipa Soo (of Hamilton fame) is lesbian part-time model Nadine. They are both hilarious, and I loved them so much.
Through an adorable meet-cute Lucy meets hunky Nick played by Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things), and they start renovating a boutique hotel together. Bernadette Peters also figures in to the story as a gallery owner and Lucy’s former boss. As the title suggests, Lucy creates a gallery of items she and others have saved from their failed relationships. It becomes an instagram phenomenon, and you can guess where the story goes from there.
The point of a movie like The Broken Hearts Gallery is not to tell the most original story. You know where it is going each step of the way. The point is to spend time with likable people, have some laughs and feel good about the world for 5 seconds. This movie does a great job with all of that, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think men and women will equally enjoy it as the male characters have personality and aren’t just tools in the plot for the women (except maybe Jeff but that’s hilarious). My friend went with her husband, and he enjoyed it because he was laughing at the witty dialogue. It’s very engaging and funny.
The one warning I will give about the film is it is a strong PG-13. In fact, I am a little surprised it could get away with that rating. I would check a content review site before seeing it to make sure it is something you are comfortable with.
If you do feel comfortable than make your way to your local theater or drive-in and watch The Broken Hearts Gallery. It’s a really fun time!