Movie Review: Sorry We Missed You (2019)


Title: Sorry We Missed You
Release Date: 23 October 2019
Director: Ken Loach
Production Company: Sixteen Films | BBC Films | BE TV | BFI Film Fund | Canal+ | Ciné+ | France 2 Cinéma | France Télévisions | Les Films du Fleuve | VOO | Why Not Productions | Wild Bunch
Summary/Review:

Sorry We Missed You documents one working class family’s struggles with the modern economy in Newcastle, England. Ricky takes an opportunity to become a self-employed delivery driver although in reality he’s under the strict supervision of Maloney (Ross Brewster) and suffers steep penalties for not hitting benchmarks. He has to sell the family car in order to buy a delivery van, forcing his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) to take the bus for her work as a home care nurse. Abby is a deeply compassionate person wanting to spend time with her elderly patients but having too tight a schedule for anything but the bear necessities. The family’s children react to their parents long absences and stressful jobs in different ways. Teenage Seb (Rhys Stone) retreats from the family, skips school, and posts graffiti with his friends. Preteen Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) suffers anxiety and takes on more responsibility than she should at her age.

Things spiral out of control for the family as setbacks affect their work performance. Their story is a grim reality for many under the uncaring guise of capitalism. This movie pairs well with Nomadland, although unlike that film, Sorry We Missed You does not offer any idea of freedom or escape in any of this, which is probably more honest.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ammonite (2020)


TitleAmmonite
Release Date: September 11, 2020
Director: Francis Lee
Production Company: BBC Films | British Film Institute | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is based on the real life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who was an underappreciated pioneer of paleontology who found and studied fossils along the coast of the English Channel at Lyme Regis. The film begins with Anning reluctantly guiding a geology enthusiast, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) on one of her collecting trips on the shore.  Accompanying Murchison is his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who is suffering severe depression.  Roderick arranges for Charlotte to remain in Lyme Regis for convalescence and pays Mary Anning to take Charlotte on her trips to the shore.

The better part of the movie is Mary and Charlotte slowly lowering their defenses, becoming friends, and then beginning a romance.  I thought with the stellar lead actors and the true life story of Anning’s contributions to science that this would be an interesting film. Winslet and Ronan do their best, but the whole movie has a paint-by-numbers approach full of well-worn tropes of period dramas and lesbian romance.  We certainly don’t learn much about the real Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, which is a shame, because even their short Wikipedia entries detail fascinating lives.

I’m not sure if this is a noble failure or if Francis Lee just totally missed the point, but what we end up here is a pretty, but hollow, film.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Summerland (2020)


TitleSummerland
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Summary/Review:

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology.  She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch.  To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her.  Hijinks ensue.

This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty).  But this movie has a few twists.  Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond.  Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.

There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie.  Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank
Summary/Review:

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: Mr. Holmes (2015)


Title: Mr. Holmes
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: AI Film | BBC Films | FilmNation Entertainment | Archer Gray Productions | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is an adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin that  stars Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes.  Having retired to a farm decades earlier where he tends to an apiary.  Holmes struggles with losing his brilliant mind to the onset of memory loss due to senile dementia. His only daily contact with other humans is his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The movie intertwines three stories.  Holmes is working on rewriting an accurate account of his last case, one he considers a failure, and is shown in flashbacks.  Struggling to remember the details, Holmes had recently traveled to Japan, and more flashbacks show him meeting his correspondent, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and visiting the ruins of Hiroshima.  There they retrieve prickly ash, a plant that is supposed to have medicinal properties for restoring the mind.  The main plot depicts Holmes bonding with Roger, an intelligent and curious boy, while training him how to care for the bees.

The movie is a good adaptation of the book.  It’s gorgeous film and McKellen is perfect at the elderly Holmes.  I don’t know if he watched Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes, but there are times where he seems to be channeling Brett’s physical tics.  The movie is also a moving depiction of Holmes struggling with the most difficult thing to lose, his mind, and the emotional breakthrough he makes with Roger and Mrs. Munro.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


Author: Ian Mortimer
Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
Publication Info:  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2011. [Originally published, 2008]
Summary/Review:

The book is written tongue-in-cheek as a guidebook of what one would find should they travel through time to 14th-century England.  Mortimer is particularly concerned with debunking popular myths and stereotypes of medieval times.  Tidbits include a breakdown of fashion, with the caveat that clothing styles changed rapidly over the course of the century (with an emphasis on men’s clothing showing off the form of the body). Traveling about the country is a challenge since people didn’t use maps and relied on spoken instructions of what road to follow.  The diet of a peasant may have actually been healthier than that for the working people of our day.  And while the Bubonic Plague is the most fearsome disease of the century, the people were also tormented by many other diseases, including leprosy.  This book is a fun, popular introduction to understanding everyday life in medieval England.

Recommended books:

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
  • Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies
  • Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Frances Gies
  • Black Death by Philip Ziegler
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Rating: ****

Movie Review: 63 Up (2019)


Title: 63 Up
Release Date: June 4, 2019
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Albert+ Sustainable production | ITV Studios | Shiver
Summary/Review:

It’s December 2019, and I’m thrilled to see the 9th installment in a legendary movie saga on the big screen!  No, not Star Wars, that’s next week.  This is the Up Series, a documentary focusing on the lives of a group of British individuals starting with the a tv special produced by Granada Television for ITV in 1964 called Seven Up!  The premise of the series is based on the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and the original filmmakers thought that the rigid class structure of England would show that the futures of these children would be locked in at 7-years-old.

Director Michael Apted has interviewed the participants every year since while wholesale social changes have gone around them. Their lives depicted in this interviews over time show things that could’ve never been predicted from their 7-year-old selves, and yet a lot of the character established early in their lives shines through over time.

As the participants approach retirement age in 63 Up, the focus of the interviews naturally focuses on subjects like grandchildren, declining health, and mortality.  Lynn, on of my favorite participants because she spent much of her life working as a devoted children’s librarian in London’s East End, died since the last movie was made. Apted interviews her children to reflect upon her life.  Nick, another favorite, after growing up on a farm in Yorkshire has lived much of his adult life in Wisconsin as a physics professor.  He is suffering from throat cancer and is visibly weakened.  He may not make it to 70 Up.

There have been some big events in Britain in the past 7 years, and several participants are asked about Brexit.  In general, almost every participant mentions growing inequality and the sense that for the first time the next generation will not have it better than their own.  The movie is not all bummers though as almost all the participants take the time to reflect on positive accomplishments in their life, the love of family, and even the connections they’ve made with other participants.

Jackie is another participant I always like in this movies, especially in the way that she’s frank about calling out Michael Apted for his shortcomings in making the movies.  She correctly notes Apted’s blindspot regarding feminism and women entering the workplace in greater numbers, while focusing on domestic questions.  In 63 Up, Jackie admits to really liking Apted. “I only told him off, I didn’t kill him!”

The screening of 63 Up I saw at Landmark Kendall Square Cinemas in Cambridge was followed by a short Q&A with Apted himself.  At 78 years old, he is looking frail and seemed to have diminishing mental faculties.  He noted himself that it would be unlikely he would be able to make 70 Up, but he hopes that someone else would carry on the project. Nevertheless, it was great to be in the presence of the famed director and hear him speak about his experience working on this great experiment in humanism.

Rating: *****

Related post: Movie Review: 56 Up

Classic Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)


Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Release Date: June 13, 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dry and satirical British comedy from Ealing Studios, among the earliest of a string of “Ealing Comedies” that include classics like The Ladykillers and often starred Alec Guinness. Set around 1900, the story focuses on Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) whose mother (Audrey Fildes) was disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying his father (also Price), an Italian singer. In revenge for their ill-treatment of his mother, Louis decides to murder every member of the D’Ascoyne family who is ahead of him in inheriting the title of Duke of Chalfont.

The so-absurd-it’s-wonderful twist is that Alec Guinness plays all the members of the D’Ascoyne family, 9 characters in all, of different ages and genders.  The amazing thing is that Guinness’ chameleon-like talent allows him to portray all these different characters without much in the way of make-up or costuming.

In addition to Guinness, the cast includes Joan Greenwood as Sibella, Louis’ childhood friend who turns down his marriage proposal due to his initial poor prospects, but later becomes his mistress.  Valerie Hobson portrays Edith, the widow of one of Louis’ murder victims whom he marries in order to have a properly elite bride.  There are a lot of good comical twists to the story, especially a stunner at the finale. And keeping with British tradition, there’s also a lot of variety and creativity in how the murders are carried out.

These days, the British aristocracy is an open target for mockery, but I wonder if in 1949 there was still some level of deference that would’ve made this movie more shocking. Deference to aristocracy is certainly a target for satire right at the start when a comical hangman seeks to  learn how to properly address his illustrious victim.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Suspicion (1941)


Title: Suspicion
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins.  Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it.  This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?

Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude.  After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling.  Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back.  When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.

The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again?  My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama.  Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2007
Summary/Review:

In 2007, expectations were high for the final volume in the Harry Potter series.  I believe it’s safe to say that J.K. Rowling stuck the landing.  I remember I was traveling home from Los Angeles the day the book was released and since the book was not available at the bookstore near my gate, I actually walked to another terminal to get a copy.  And then I read most of it on my redeye flight to Boston.

It felt like a huge change to have Harry, Hermione, and Ron skipping their final year at Hogwarts to search for horcruxes.  The familiar structure of Harry Potter novels was disrupted. Instead we get a novel with two distinct sections.  The first is kind of a mystery as the trio search for clues to find and destroy  horcruxes.  The second is a war story as the forces of good face Voldemort and his Death Eater for a climactic battle.

What’s impressive is that so many of the themes, places, and characters established in the previous six stories are worked into the story.  Griphook and Mr. Ollivander, for example, are people Harry met in his first encounter with the Wizarding World and they each play a vital role in this novel.  These throwbacks are natural though and all click into place in a satisfying narrative.

While still a large book, The Deathly Hallows feels more narratively straight-forward and moves faster than its predecessors.  Obviously a lot of work was set up for this book by its predecessors, especially The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, that did a lot of the scene-setting and explanation, whereas The Deathly Hallows is more about piecing that knowledge together. There are some parts that didn’t work for me.  Harry meeting Dumbledore in a heaven-like Kings Cross rather than dying felt like a cop-out to me at first, although I’ve softened on that over time.  The epilogue is something I see a lot criticism about, and I agree that it is unsatisfying, probably because it is unnecessary.

The Deathly Hallows was the only book that came out after I started this blog so you can also read my initial impressions from 2007.

 

Rating: