Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Censor’ (2021), starring Niamh Algar

June 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Niamh Algar in “Censor” (Photo by Maria Lax/Magnet Releasing)

“Censor” (2021)

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1980s England, the horror film “Censor” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who works as a movie censor begins experiencing nightmarish visions related to a tragedy from her past. 

Culture Audience: “Censor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror films that put more emphasis on creating unsettling atmospheres than providing easy answers.

Niamh Algar in “Censor” (Photo by Maria Lax/Magnet Releasing)

“Censor” is the type of horror movie that won’t satisfy people who are looking for a predictable ending, but it succeeds in immersing viewers into the psychological terror of a very disturbed mind. The movie has plenty of gory and bloody murder scenes, but what many viewers might find more frightening is being taken into a world where fact and fantasy are constantly blurred and play tricks on people’s sense of reality. Niamh Algar’s riveting performance in “Censor” elevates the movie’s tendency to be repetitive, which could have dragged down the story if not for Algar’s commendable acting.

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, “Censor” is her feature-film directorial debut, based on Bailey-Bond’s short film “Nasty.” Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher co-wrote the screenplay for “Censor,” which takes place in early 1980s England, when the VHS video boom caused an increase in direct-to-video releases that could bypass the censors. Horror movies in particular benefited from the direct-to-video business model. And in England, these uncensored films became known as “video nasties.”

“Censor” takes place during a time when the British Board of Film Censors (which changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification in 1984) was adapting to the increasing distribution of videotapes sold directly to consumers as a new format for the movie industry. The BBFC, which is a non-governmental group founded by the film industry, works in a way that’s similar to the Motion Picture Association of America, by classifying or rating films, based on the minimum age that would be deemed appropriate to see those films.

In “Censor,” Algar portrays Enid Baines, a prim and proper spinster in her 30s who works for the BBFC. She takes her job very seriously and is a stickler for details. In an opening scene of the “Censor,” she has a conversation with her condescending co-worker Sanderson (played by Nicholas Burns) about a scene they watched in a horror movie that’s being evaluated for a rating classification.

Enid says to Sanderson, “The decapitation is ridiculous. It’s the eye gouging. It’s too realistic. Plus, I was trying to see who dragged her away.” Sanderson replies, “Does it matter? … I appreciate you analyzing this with clear precision, Enid. But someone perhaps got out of the cautious side of the bed this morning.”

Enid ignores Sanderson’s attempt to belittle her as uptight. Fortunately, not all of her co-workers are disrespectful. Enid also works closely with matronly Anne (played by Clare Perkins) and easygoing Perkins (played by Danny Lee Wynter), who both express concerns to Enid about her emotional well-being if it looks like she’s particularly disturbed by any of the violent content that she has to screen for her job. However, Enid experiences sexual harassment from a movie producer named Doug Smart (played by Michael Smiley) when he makes rude and sexist comments to her while he visiting in the office.

“Censor” doesn’t really show much of Enid’s home life, because viewers will get the impression that her life revolves around her work. However, there’s a tragedy from Enid’s past that has been haunting her. And a decision that her parents have made about this tragedy seems to set Enid off on a downward spiral of madness.

One day, Enid’s parents June Baines (played by Clare Holman) and George Baines (played by Andrew Havill) invite her to dinner at a restaurant to tell her some important news: They have decided to officially declare their missing daughter Lucy as dead. Lucy, who was Enid’s younger sister, disappeared in the forest of Chorleywood (a village in England), in 1958, when Lucy was 7 years old. Enid was about 12 or 13 at the time, and was with Lucy on the day that Lucy disappeared. At the time, Lucy and Enid were living with their parents in Brimstead, Middlesex.

Enid has vague and fractured memories of Lucy’s disappearance. Because she could never fully remember what happened when Lucy disappeared, it has added to the tremendous guilt that Enid has felt ever since. Enid disagrees with her parents’ decision to declare that Lucy is dead, because Enid thinks there’s still a possibility that Lucy could still be alive. Enid also thinks that Lucy was kidnapped.

However, Lucy’s death certificate has already been made official. When Enid’s parents show Enid the death certificate, Enid has a hard time looking at it. Enid’s mother June tries to change the subject and asks Enid if she’s recently seen any good movies to recommend. Enid somberly explains to her mother what Enid’s job is: “It’s not entertainment, mum. I do it to protect people.”

The rising numbers of “video nasties” have created a backlash from certain people in the United Kingdom who want to blame these horror movies on an increase in crime. At the time, the U.K. (under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) was experiencing an economic recession and high unemployment, which is often linked to an increase in crime, but people often want to scapegoat violent movies and TV as the reason. Enid is about to experience this backlash firsthand.

One day, Enid and Sanderson are called into the office of their boss Fraser (played by Victor Franklin), who nervously tells them about a phone call that he got that day from a journalist doing a story about a high-profile murder case. A man was recently arrested for murdering his wife, eating her face, and then shooting and killing their two children. This disturbing crime is eerily similar to a scene from a horror movie titled “Derangement,” and the journalist is linking this murder to the movie. And just like in “Derangement,” the murderer claims to have no memory of committing the crime. The media gave him the nickname the Amnesiac Killer.

Fraser is unnerved because somehow, the journalist knew that Enid and Sanderson where the two censors who evaluated “Derangement” before giving it a rating. Fraser demands a complete internal investigation and for Enid and Sanderson to give him a step-by-step analysis to explain why they decided to allow “Derangement” to be approved for release. Fraser also sternly lectures Enid and Sanderson that if they have any doubts about the content that they evaluate, they should not approve it and ask for edits or reject the movie altogether.

While all of this drama is going on in Enid’s job and personal life, she and Perkins watch a movie that’s up for evaluation. It’s an untitled film from a director called Frederick North. And what Enid sees in the movie seems to push her off the deep end into an abyss of emotional despair. What follows for the rest of “Censor” are flashbacks or hallucinations about what might or might not have happened when Enid and Lucy were in the woods all those years ago.

There’s a tall, menacing hulk—who has the name Beastman (played by Guillaume Delaunay) in the film credits—who is shown lurking in the woods and enticing a young Lucy into his remote house. (Beau Gadsdon plays a young Enid in these flashbacks.)There’s a horror movie called “Asunder” that Enid gets from a video store that offers more pieces to this mind-bending puzzle. An actress named Alice Lee (played by Sophia La Porta) is the star of “Asunder,” and Enid becomes obsessed with her because she fears that Alice is in danger.

One of the more effective aspects of “Censor” is how cinematographer Annika Summerson contrasts the dull and drab hues of Enid’s everyday life with the psychedelic nightmarish hues of Enid’s visions that take place in the forest. If it isn’t obvious to viewers during the movie, it’s made very clear at the end of the film that the forest is a metaphor for Enid’s mind. And getting trapped there is an experience that is not for the faint of heart.

Magnet Releasing released “Censor” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Six Minutes to Midnight,’ starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench

April 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Six Minutes to Midnight”

Directed by Andy Goddard

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1939, the spy drama “Six Minutes to Midnight” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and various government officials.

Culture Clash: On the brink of World War II, a German British spy poses as an English teacher at a boarding school in England for daughters of powerful German Nazis.

Culture Audience: “Six Minutes to Midnight” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about spies who target Nazis, but the movie ineptly bungles what are supposed to be the most suspenseful parts of the story.

Carla Juri and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench star in a movie about a spy who infiltrates a boarding school for Nazi teenage girls. What could possibly go wrong? In the case of the woefully misguided “Six Minutes to Midnight”—everything. The story’s “mystery villain” is revealed about halfway through the film, and the rest of the story consists of far-fetched chase scenes and shootouts.

The only realistic thing about “Six Minutes to Midnight” is that the story was inspired by the real-life Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious independent boarding school for mostly teenage girls in the coastal town of Bexhill-on-Seas, England, which is Izzard’s hometown. Augusta-Victoria College existed from 1932 to 1939, and it enrolled German female students ranging in ages from 16 to 21. It was a school intended to foster good will between British and German cultures. The school’s students weren’t just any students though: They were the daughters of high-ranking Nazis.

According to the “Six Minutes to Midnight” production notes, Izzard was so intrigued by the history of Augusta-Victoria College, it inspired Izzard to want to do a movie about it. Andrew Goddard directed “Six Minutes to Midnight” from a screenplay that he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones. Izzard is also one of the producers of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” which comes across as a bit of a vanity project where Izzard wants to be a spy character who’s an action star, without the suave flair and dazzling stunts of James Bond.

Fair enough, but it’s unfortunate that Izzard was a major creator for this clumsily constructed movie. “Six Minutes to Midnight” also shamefully glosses over the horrors of Nazi evil and is instead more concerned with whether or not Augusta-Victoria College’s lonely spinster headmistress will be separated from her students, as war appears inevitable between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost next to nothing about Izzard’s Thomas Miller character, except that he sure likes to use the beach a lot as a hiding place.

“Six Minutes to Midnight,” which takes place over a period of less than a month, begins on August 15, 1939, in Bexhill-on-Sea. A middle-aged man who goes by the name of Wheatley (played by Nigel Lindsay) is in a classroom, as he frantically looks for something that’s in a hidden space behind one of the room’s book shelves. He takes out a small box and is visibly upset when he finds out that what he’s looking for isn’t there.

Viewers find out a short time later that this classroom is at Augusta-Victoria College, which is sprawled out on a large property near the beach. As a distraught Wheatley quickly rides off on a bicycle, he is being watched through an upper-room window by the school’s headmistress/principal Miss Rocholl (played by Dench), who’s got that hard-nosed “Don’t try to mess with me” look that Dench has for most of the characters she tends to play. Wheatley goes to a phone booth, where he makes a panicky phone call to an unidentified man.

“It’s missing!” Wheatley shouts. “Don’t you understand? They’ve taken it!” The man on the other line can be heard saying something about duty. Wheatley responds, “They know they’re being watched! I can’t go back!”

So now that it’s been established that Wheatley has been caught spying on Augusta-Victoria College, it’s kind of a no-brainer to figure out who sent him there. The person on the other line was guilt-tripping Wheatley about “duty.” And that just screams “service to the government.”

The fact that Wheatley is a government spy isn’t the mystery. The mystery is what happened to Wheatley, who is shown sitting at a table on a pier’s wooden deck after making his upsetting phone call. And then, the next thing you know, all that’s seen is that Wheatley is missing from the deck and his bowler hat is flying off in the wind. Did he disappear? Is he dead? Did he give his two weeks’ notice? Does anyone care?

Izzard’s Thomas Miller character comes into the picture soon afterward, when he interviews at Augusta-Victoria College, as a replacement for Wheatley. The school found Wheatley and Thomas through the same employment agency. Thomas is greeted in a friendly and upbeat manner by schoolteacher Ilse Keller (played by Carla Juri), who is Miss Rocholl’s trusted right-hand person.

What’s somewhat laughable about this badly made film is that even though there are only 20 students currently at this school, Ilse and Miss Rocholl are the only faculty members seen at Augusta-Victoria College. Where are the other employees? There isn’t even a janitor or caretaker in sight for this sizeable property.

Augusta-Victoria College is portrayed in the movie as a high-level finishing school for girls (they practice things such as poise and balance by walking with books on their heads), but there no servants shown on the premises of this boarding school. After all, how can these Hitler youth practice a bigoted Nazi sense of superiority without “lowly” staffers to boss around? The main indication that the students are in a cult-like environment is when Ilse frequently takes the students to the nearby beach, where the students stand in military-like formations and move when she commands them to, like good little Stepford Nazis.

Thomas predictably gets hired at the school, so he’s technically the third faculty member shown in the movie. However, he doesn’t become a permanent staffer, because Miss Rocholl tells Thomas when she hires him that she wants to test him out on a trial basis first. In other words, he’s a temporary employee. This job interview takes place on August 21, 1939, which is six days after Wheatley has disappeared. By the time that the end of the story happens on September 3, 1939, Thomas will be long gone from his employment at Augusta-Victoria College.

In his job interview with Miss Rocholl, she is stern and judgmental. She asks Thomas about his personal life and finds out that he’s a bachelor with no children . When she asks him, “What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler’s legal German girls?” Thomas tells her that his father is German. And it’s convenient that he’s bilingual because Thomas has been hired as the school’s English teacher.

Miss Rocholl admits to Thomas that the school needed to hire someone on short notice because Thomas’ predecessor turned out to be “unreliable.” She adds, “My girls need order. Next week, we present them to the Anglo-German fellowship.” Thomas doesn’t bother to ask her what happened to his predecessor, because he already knows that Wheatley has disappeared. Thomas and the rest of the school will eventually find out what happened to Wheatley.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has some filler and predictable scenes that always seem to be in movies where one of the main locations is a school for teenagers. There’s the stereotypical “mean girl”/queen bee student, whose name is Astrid (played Maria Dragus). And there’s the socially awkward outcast student, whose name is Gretel (played by Tijan Marei). The rest of the students are written with indistinguishable personalities. And most of the students do not have any speaking lines in the movie.

Astrid and Gretel are written as such extreme opposites that their characters are almost caricatures. Astrid is the outgoing popular student who excels in athletics and academics. Gretel is the shy misfit who’s smart but she doesn’t know how to swim, which is the main physical sport that the students have at the school. Gretel often spends time by herself while the other students participate in athletic and social activities.

Astrid is the type of person who will smile in someone’s face and then make insulting remarks behind that person’s back. That’s what she does to Thomas on his first day on the job at Augusta-Victoria College. Astrid is the first student to welcome him in the class, but later on, Thomas overhears Astrid telling another student with a smirk that Thomas wouldn’t be considered “man enough” for the Fuhrer, in other words, Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, Thomas establishes a bit of a rapport with bashful and sensitive Gretel, because he can relate to feeling like an outsider in this stuffy and elitist environment. He notices that Gretel is frequently shunned by her classmates, so he occasionally gives her little pep talks. But Thomas’ interactions with the students are not shown very much because he’s got an ulterior motive for being at this school. It isn’t long before Thomas is snooping around because he was sent to Augusta-Victoria College to find out what happened to Wheatley.

The movie makes subtle and not-so-subtle references to Augusta-Victoria College being a school that taught Nazi propaganda. Thomas finds an Augusta-Victoria College school crest embroidered on a patch, which has a lion flanked by the United Kingdom flag on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. (This movie uses the real-life Augusta-Victoria College crest.)

One day, Thomas walks by a classroom and sees Miss Rocholl and the students listening to a Hitler speech on the radio. To his surprise, Miss Rocholl joins the students in a Nazi salute while they chant “Sieg Heil!” At that moment, Miss Rocholl and Thomas make eye contact, and she can sense his disgust.

Later, in a private meeting between Miss Rocholl and Thomas, she tries to justify her apparent allegiance to the Nazis. Miss Rocholl has this to say about joining in on the “Sieg Heil” chant: “It means ‘Hail Victory.’ That’s all … Why should we criticize a country that strives to be great?”

Miss Rocholl then tries to appeal to Thomas’ empathetic side by telling him: “These girls are my life. They give me hope. And that’s why I join in when they say, ‘Hail Victory.'” In another part of the story, Miss Rocholl also says to Thomas that she wants to keep the girls as sheltered as possible from the outside world. Can you say “Nazi brainwashing school?”

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Augusta-Victoria College is a training ground for Hitler’s Nazi youth, there’s another scene where Thomas (who lurks quite a bit in the school hallways) walks by a classroom and sees Ilse pivoting a discussion with the students into an anti-Semitic lecture. Ilse starts off talking about how it’s hard to tell from appearances if someone is good or evil. Then she asks the students for examples of how to spot the differences between animals of the same species. And then she turns it into a discussion about how to find out the differences between Jews and Gentiles. The movie stops short of showing her going into details about how to identify Jewish people.

And what about Thomas’ spy mission? There are the predictable scenes of him hiding in places to eavesdrop on conversations. And don’t forget the formulaic scene of Thomas rifling through desk drawers and secretly photographing certain documents with a miniature camera that’s the same size as a modern-day flash drive.

The title of “Six Minutes to Midnight” comes from Thomas using the code 1154 (as in, 11:54 p.m.) to identify himself when he calls into spy headquarters. Technically, if he were using government time codes to signify “six minutes to midnight.” he should have used the digits 2354. But that’s the least of this movie’s problems with logic.

There’s also a fairly ludicrous scene of Thomas having a tension-filled meeting with his supervisor Colonel Smith (played David Schofield) at, of all places, a live comedy show. Let’s see: You’re an undercover spy who’s supposed to be having a secret conversation with your boss about a clandestine mission. And you think the best place to have this confidential conversation is in the audience of a show where you have to raise your voice in order to be heard because someone’s performing on stage while you’re talking. And you’re surrounded by people who could hear what you’re talking about in a theater that’s fairly dark, so you don’t really know who could be eavesdropping. Somewhere, James Bond is laughing at this spy sloppiness.

The very talented Jim Broadbent is in the cast of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” but he’s barely in the movie. His scenes last for less than 10 minutes, thereby squandering Broadbent’s talent. It’s another reason why “Six Minutes to Midnight” is foolish and annoying. Broadbent portrays a friendly man named Charlie, the owner of a private bus service called Charlie Bus Hire. It’s a small business that seems to have only one bus, and Charlie is the driver.

Thomas and Charlie cross paths a few times in the movie when Thomas needs a bus ride to wherever he needs to go. The government didn’t provide a car for Thomas while he was undercover for this assignment, presumably to make his teacher impersonation more believable. A low-paid teacher wasn’t supposed to be able to afford a car in those days.

Charlie is the type of small role that should have gone to a lesser renowned actor. An actor of Broadbent’s caliber should have been showcased more in this movie. It’s disappointing to see Broadbent, who is capable of better and more substantial work, in such a poorly written role that reduces him to some wisecracking jokes that don’t land well at all.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” really falls off the rails when Thomas goes on the run after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. One of the characters ends up getting shot in front of Thomas one rainy night. Viewers get to see who the shooter is, but Thomas doesn’t see the killer because it was raining so hard and he was in a car when it happened.

After the murder, the shooter ran away and dropped the gun, with the intent to frame Thomas for the murder. And sure enough, Thomas ran out of the car and picked up the gun, right at the same moment that a police officer arrived to see Thomas with blood on his clothes and holding the murder weapon. What a coincidence.

James D’Arcy has the role of Captain Drey, the law enforcement officer who’s in charge of investigating the murder. Captain Drey doesn’t believe Thomas’ proclamations of innocence. Thomas and Captain Drey have the expected personality clashes. And you can easily predict how this murder is going to affect Thomas’ ability to stay undercover as a spy.

Izzard seems to be trying earnestly to be an action hero, but it’s just not believable in the context of how ridiculously many of the scenes are staged. The shootout scenes lack credibility because “Six Minutes to Midnight” is one of those movies where people spend more time talking while they’re aiming their guns than actually shooting their targets. And get used to aerial shots of Izzard running away on a beach, because there’s plenty of that repetition in the movie.

As for Dench and Juri, they’ve played the same types of characters in other movies before: Dench as the no-nonsense taskmaster, Juri as the helpful assistant/sidekick. The acting from the cast members isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing extraordinary or noteworthy about it either. The character of Thomas is very hollow and uninteresting. It’s kind of mind-boggling that Izzard (one of the screenplay co-writers) couldn’t come up with a better character for this starring role.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” director/co-writer Goddard puts some effort into making the scenes try to look artistic. The big showdown at the end of the movie takes place on a beach at night. Some flare guns are used in this scene, to visually stunning results. But those are just superficial effects. The actual confrontation with weapons in this scene ends up being very dull and anti-climactic.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has an almost flippant and dismissive attitude about the disturbing genocide and other mayhem caused by Nazis. The movie only wants to address the Nazis’ destruction in vague, abstract terms. The characters in the movie don’t really talk about why the United Kingdom is headed toward war with Nazi Germany. Instead, it becomes all about whether or not Thomas can prove his innocence in the murder case and what’s going to happen to the Augusta-Victoria College students.

This movie didn’t have to be a history lesson, but it’s very off-putting that all these characters in “Six Minutes to Midnight” who work for the British government won’t even acknowledge the suffering of the people who are the targets of Nazi hate. It might have been the filmmakers’ way of showing how people were in denial or willing to enable Nazi atrocities. But it’s a weak excuse when most of the main characters in the story are not ignorant citizens and they know exactly why Great Britain is going to war with Nazi Germany.

Simply put: “Six Minutes to Midnight” gives a much higher priority in trying to make viewers care about the comfort and well-being of Nazi youth and their British teachers than it does in trying to make viewers care about the people whose lives were destroyed by Nazis. It’s a completely tone-deaf movie that couldn’t even deliver a suspenseful mystery story. And in the end, “Six Minutes to Midnight” is a time-wasting film where the main characters don’t seem to have any emotional growth because they’re all so emotionally barren from the start.

Review: ‘His House,’ starring Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku

January 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in “His House” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

“His House”

Directed by Remi Weekes

Some language in Sudanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and in South Sudan, the horror flick “His House” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white and Latino people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A refugee husband and wife flee from war-torn South Sudan to England but find a different kind of horror in their new home.

Culture Audience: “His House” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that are more about dark psychological issues and society oppressions than bloody gore.

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku in “His House” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

At first, the horror movie “His House” might appear to be a standard horror flick about a haunted house. There’s the surface-level plot that is common in movies with haunted house movies : A married couple moves into a new home, which is plagued by spirits that cause terror. But “His House” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Remi Weekes) delves much deeper than just the protagonists’ usual dilemma about what to do about the ghosts. It’s also a blistering meditation on trauma, both self-inflicted and that which is imposed by society.

In the beginning of “His House,” married couple Bol Majur (played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and Rial Majur (played by Wunmi Mosaku) are shown fleeing their native South Sudan by boat with other war refugees. They land in an unnamed part of England, but are quickly detained by immigration authorities. Bol and Rial are told by a condescending immigration official Mark Essworth (played by Matt Smith) that they will be freed from detention under certain conditions. “This is bail … not citizenship,” Mark tells the couple.

In exchange for their freedom, Bol and Rial are placed in a run-down housing development, where they are assigned a nearly empty house that’s also in a state of disrepair. The U.K. government has also assigned jobs to Bol and Rial, as a condition for the couple not to be deported. Living in the house comes with strict government rules: No guests, no smoking and no candles.

Mark tells Bol and Rial that they should feel lucky because this house is much larger than what the government gives to an undocumented immigrant couple. Rial is immediately suspicious. “Why are we so special?” she asks Mark. He replies, “You must’ve hit the jackpot.”

Bol and Rial try to make the best of the situation by looking at this new chapter in their lives with a positive attitude. Rial comments, “We will be new here.” Bol adds, “Born again.” However, it’s hard to overlook that the one-bedroom house is such a dump. It’s dirty, the wallpaper and paint are peeling, and the house’s electrical connections don’t always seem to work properly.

During the couple’s first night in the house, it becomes immediately apparent that things aren’t quite right there. Bol hears the sound of someone humming and then rustling sounds. And then, a bat flies through a hole in the wall after he sees a vision of Rial on the floor.

The area around the house is desolate and bleak. The neighbors keep to themselves, and so do Bol and Rial. The movie gives a slight feeling of disorientation when Bol visits a barber and asks him if they’re in London. And the barber gives a strange answer: “Why not?”

As time goes on, Bol and then Rial start to see frightening visions of people in the house. Sometimes the people appear to be hiding between the walls, while other times the people appear in the same rooms. During one startling incident, Bol finds behind peeling wallpaper that there’s a long rope attached to seaweed. He then sees a blonde girl doll, which a mysterious hand then quickly grabs and pulls back into the abyss.

Bol and Rial are terrified to tell people what they’re seeing in the house, because they don’t want to risk looking like crazy immigrants. If they report the house as haunted, they could be even more at risk for being deported. And they can’t move from the house, as per government rules that Bol and Ral agreed to, in order to avoid being deported. The best that Bol and Rial can do is report that the house is experiencing electrical problems, with the hope that government officials who come to inspect can possibly find the root of the problem.

As part of their government-sanctioned asylum, Bol and Rial get medical checkups. During Rial’s visit with a doctor, she explains why she has unusual marks on her body: While in South Sudan, she marked herself with the signs of both warring tribes so that she wouldn’t get killed. The idea was to confuse any possible captors about which was her real tribe. Later in the story, it’s revealed that before fleeing to England, Rial watched her entire family in South Sudan get murdered during a brutal massacre.

The rest of “Our House” gradually uncovers more layers to the story, and the details won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that there’s a family curse and a dead daughter that have a lot do with why Bol and Rial might be haunted by the spirits who inhabit the house. And certain characters aren’t necessarily who they first appear to be.

“His House” also has the added depth of being an immigrant story of people who are in a foreign country that they both admire and fear. In movies about haunted houses, the people being plagued by these ghosts are usually there of their own free will and won’t move because they’ve got too much invested financially in staying in the house. “His House” flips that typical narrative by making it a movie about people essentially forced to live in a haunted house, on orders of a government. This immigrant couple was seeking freedom in another country, but the irony is that in this new country, this husband and wife have essentially held captive by a government which is controlling their lives.

The movie is also about how trauma can be its own kind of prison. At various points in the story, viewers are left to wonder what might be “real” and what might be a hallucination. And as the visions get more threatening and oppressive, Bo and Rial have different ways of handling everything. “His House” plays guessing games about who might be more mentally unbalanced: Bo or Rial?

“His House” writer/director Weekes brings a “slow burn” terror to the story that has enough scares to make it a genuine horror movie. The movie does not get bogged down in too much bloody gore, which is the direction that many other movies of this type might go. Even though the house is dilapidated, Weekes brings almost a stylish gloom to the atmosphere when the ghosts appear.

“His House” is also not a typical haunted house movie where, one by one, people get killed in the house, because the Majurs are very much isolated in their new home. Dìrísù and Mosaku turn in admirable performances, especially when more of this couple’s background is revealed. The movie’s acting is effective, but the story’s real impact comes from the lingering feeling that people can move to different places, but they can’t really escape from emotional baggage.

Netflix premiered “His House” on October 30, 2020.

Review: ‘Duty Free,’ starring Rebecca Danigelis and Sian-Pierre Regis

November 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sian-Pierre Regis and Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Joey Dwyer/Duty Free Film)

“Duty Free”

Directed by Sian-Pierre Regis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and the United Kingdom, the documentary “Duty Free” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) discussing the life of British immigrant Rebecca Danigelis, a longtime hotel employee in the United States who found herself laid-off and looking for work at the age of 75.

Culture Clash: During this tumultuous life transition, Danigelis experienced age discrimination in her job search, and she decided to have a reunion with her estranged adult daughter, who was raised by Danigelis’ older sister in England.

Culture Audience: “Duty Free” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting stories about family, aging and senior citizens who want to be in the work force.

Rebecca Danigelis in “Duty Free” (Photo by Steve Sherrick/Duty Free Film)

For millions of people, retirement in the usual age range (65 and older) isn’t really an option because they don’t have enough money to retire. It’s an issue that’s not often discussed in mainstream media when there are news reports about the unemployed. But the documentary “Duty Free,” which was filmed over three years, takes a very personal look at the story of Rebecca Danigelis, a senior citizen who was abruptly laid off from her job as a housekeeping supervisor at a Boston hotel in 2016, when she was 75 years old. Dangelis is originally from Liverpool England, and she immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. All three of her children were born in the United States.

Danigelis’ youngest child, Sian-Pierre Regis (who is an entertainment journalist by profession), decided to chronicle the experience of his mother’s unemployment, and it ended up becoming this documentary, which is Regis’ feature-film debut as a director. “Duty Free,” which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020, was largely funded through a Kickstarter campaign. And the result is a very memorable documentary that manages to be intimate yet relatable. This mother and son have a very close relationship, which shines through in a natural and charming way throughout the entire film.

It’s clear from the documentary’s opening scenes that Regis was in the habit of video recording his mother before the footage ended up in this movie. Danigelis is shown on the job at Hotel 140 in Boston, where she worked for 40 years, with the footage showing her explaining the ins and outs of her position as supervisor of the housekeeping staff. Danigelis comments as she gives a tour of her hotel duties: “Housekeeping is the heart of the hotel. It’s a hard job but it’s a very rewarding job because you take things that look like nothing and make them look great.”

Her exact salary isn’t mentioned in the documentary, but she says that she had a relatively low income where she couldn’t earn enough to save for retirement. Regis mentions in the film that his mother spent most of her savings to pay for his college education at Colgate University, where he graduated in 2006. (It’s implied that she did not have a 401K retirement plan with her employer.) Danigelis got to live rent-free at the hotel, on the condition that she would be on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That all-consuming work schedule left her very little time to do a lot of things that many working people can do, such as travel a lot or have a weekends free for leisure time.

So why did Danigelis stay in this dead-end job? She explains that working at the hotel was more than a job. She says that her fellow employees and subordinates (who clearly respected her) were like a second family to her. However, the documentary shows that people in the hotel’s management (who are not interviewed in the film) began to show signs that they wanted to force Danigelis out of the job, probably because of her age.

According to Danigelis, after 40 years of having a spotless record on the job, she began to get written up for “insubordination,” which she says was an unfounded accusation. There were other signs that she was being edged out of the job, such as some of her responsibilities were being taken away and she was excluded from certain decisions that were part of her job requirements. The documentary shows, through phone conversations that Danigelis had with her son Sian-Pierre, that she was feeling increasingly frustrated, worried and sad over what she says were management’s obvious attempts to try to get her to quit.

She refused to quit, but feared that she would end up getting fired. And that’s exactly what happened, when one day she was told that her position had been eliminated. The hotel management gave her just two weeks of severance pay, and she was told that she would have one year to find another place to live.

Adding to the stress and financial pressure of her situation, Danigelis is also the caregiver of her schizophrenic son Gabriel, who is Sian-Pierre’s older brother. Gabriel did not participate in the documentary, but he is shown briefly from the back, in one scene in the home where he’s using a desktop computer. Sian-Pierre mentions at the beginning of the documentary that his mother sacrificed a lot to give him and Gabriel a good life. And when so, when it was time for his mother to get financial support from him, he didn’t hesitate to help her.

Sian-Pierre is also his mother’s main emotional support, so he spent a lot of time commuting from his home in New York City to Boston, in order to help his mother get her life back on track. He says in a voiceover in the documentary, “At 32, with no savings myself, I had to figure out how to keep us afloat.” That mean that Sian-Pierre (who’s worked as a on-air contributor/producer for MTV, BET and CNN) had to put some of his career on hold while he spent time in Boston.

Danigelis’ job loss was devastating, of course. She describes how she felt about being laid off: “I felt tossed away … Not only did I lose a job, I lost a family.” The documentary includes footage of Sian-Pierre helping his mother try to get back into the job market, by having her sign up for LinkedIn for the first time, looking for jobs online, and helping her craft her updated résumé. But the best parts of the film aren’t about her job search. (Not surprisingly, she experienced a lot of age discrimination while looking for a new job.)

The best parts of “Duty Free” are when Danigelis, with Sian-Pierre’s help, discovers new things about herself. Sian-Pierre mentions that his mother’s job loss and the extra time that he spent with her caused him to find out more about who his mother is as a person. The documentary shows this emotional journey in a very impactful way. Although the movie is about Danigelis, it’s is also about Sian-Pierre, since he gives voiceover narration with his perspective.

Sian-Pierre (who comes across as a very optimistic person) had the idea for his mother to use her unexpected free time to do things that she always wanted to do but never had the time to do before she lost her job. He doesn’t really call it a “bucket list,” but more like a “life list.” The documentary shows him accompanying his mother on all of her “life list” excursions.

Her list is a range of activities that include trying new things for the first time, such as joining Instagram, taking a hip-hop dance class, milking a cow, and skydiving. Also on the list was a nostalgia trip to Detroit, the city where she first settled when she moved to the United States. She discovered during her Detroit visit that the city has changed a lot since when she lived there.

The movie packs the most soul-stirring punch when she and Sian-Pierre go to England to do some family-related things on her “life list.” They include visiting her older sister Elsie’s grave, reuniting with her estranged adult daughter Joanne, and baking a cake with Joanne’s daughter Layla. This trip opens up some emotional wounds that might or might not be healed by the end of the film.

The way that “Duty Free” is edited, Danigelis explains her personal history toward the middle of the film, around the time that she and Sian-Pierre are shown going to England. When she came to America in her 20s, she was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic hospitality worker whose job was to promote tourism in Great Britain. She ended up falling for and marrying an American man. She became a permanent U.S. resident and they settled down in Detroit, where they had a daughter named Joanne.

According to Danigelis, the marriage fell apart because her businessman husband worked a lot and they became distant from each other. After the divorce, Danigelis found out that she had breast cancer. Fearing that she would die and knowing that her ex-husband did not want to take custody of Joanne, Danigelis sent Joanne (who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time) to live with Danigelis’ older sister Elsie in England. Danigelis recovered from the breast cancer, but decided to let Joanne stay in England because she thought that her daughter seemed happy there, and Joanne was living a life that Danigelis could not afford.

Years later, in the 1980s, Danigelis met and fell in love with the man who became the father of Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. She thought they would eventually get married, but they didn’t, because of a big secret that he was keeping from her. While she was pregnant with Sian-Pierre, she found out that her lover was already married and had another family with his wife.

Danigelis’ relationship with this man ended, and she apparently cut off all contact with him, because it’s clear that he was not involved in raising Gabriel and Sian-Pierre. It’s not even mentioned in the movie if he’s dead or alive. In the documentary, Danigelis remembers experiencing racism because her sons are biracial (their father is black) and how she would always proudly stand up for herself and her children when they experienced bigotry.

Does she get to do all the things on her “life list”? And how did achieving any of these goals affect her or her family? The documentary answers those questions in ways that will no doubt make some viewers shed some tears but also feel a lot of the joy that’s in the film.

There are some important lessons that Danigelis learns that can be beneficial to anyone who goes through similar situations or has a family member who does. She finds out that the job she poured her heart and soul into for decades actually prevented her from experiencing many other things she should have experienced in life, such as spending more time with her family. Danigelis couldn’t even go to England for her beloved sister Elsie’s funeral because she couldn’t take time off from work.

It’s a cautionary tale to not let a job take up your life so much that it causes you to lose touch with the people who are most important to you who aren’t co-workers. Danigelis’ story also speaks to a larger issue of how the job market should have better treatment of senior citizens who still want to work or need to work. It’s an issue that will become even more prevalent in society, as today’s young people are expected to live longer than previous generations did, but are less likely to have enough money to retire when they reach retirement age.

One of the harsh realities that Danigelis experiences in her job search is that her years of experience don’t count for much when she’s discriminated against because she looks her age. Even though she makes the mistake of putting the year that she graduated from high school on her résumé (and no one bothers to tell her that’s a big mistake), it still doesn’t erase the problem of age discrimination that she faces when she shows up for an interview or a job fair, and her physical appearance gives away her age.

The documentary does not show any employers blatantly discriminating against her during her job search, but it’s clear from Danigelis getting constantly rejected for jobs, or not getting any response at all when she applies, that her age has a lot to do with her difficulty in finding a new job. It’s implied that employers wrongly assume that because of her age, she’s not physically fit or will have health problems that will affect her job performance. And because she still wants to work in the hospitality industry in hotel jobs that require physical labor and standing a lot, it’s easy to see why some places would be reluctant to hire her.

Through it all, Sian-Pierre is there to lift his mother’s spirits and help her do things that might be out of her comfort zone but end up making her have more appreciation for herself and her life. It’s not all smooth sailing, because Danigelis understandably has moments where she feels defeated and depressed. But “Duty Free” is truly an example of how family members can pull together in a crisis and come out stronger than before. And the movie also sounds an alarm to not undervalue or neglect senior citizens, many of whom might not be as lucky as Danigelis is to have family members who care about them.

UPDATE: Duty Free LLC will release “Duty Free” in New York City on April 30, 2021. The movie’s release will expand to more cities and virtual cinemas on May 7, 2021.

Review: ‘Anthony,’ starring Toheeb Jimoh, Rakie Ayola, Julia Brown and Bobby Schofield

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Toheeb Jimoh in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

“Anthony”

Directed by Terry McDonough

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from 2005 to 2012, the dramatic film “Anthony” has a cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: This semi-biographical movie speculates what could have happened if real-life murder victim Anthony Walker, who was killed in a racist hate crime at the age of 18, had lived for the next seven years.

Culture Audience: “Anthony” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate the concept of this movie, knowing that it was made to get people to feel sad or upset over this tragic murder.

Rakie Ayola in “Anthony” (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)

On July 30, 2005, 18-year-old Anthony Walker was murdered in Huyton, Merseyside, England, by two white men in a racist hate crime that was an unprovoked attack. The two killers targeted Anthony, Anthony’s girlfriend Louise Thompson and Anthony’s cousin Marcus Binns, after seeing them waiting at a bus stop. After yelling racist insults at the trio, the killers chased them down in a car. Anthony had the misfortune of not being able to escape when the killers caught him and viciously murdered him.

These sordid details are necessary to know what’s in store when people watch the emotionally touching dramatic movie “Anthony,” which is a mostly speculative story about what Anthony’s life would have been like if the attack never happened and he had lived for the next seven years. The story is told in reverse chronological order, so that the end of the movie depicts what happened in real life: Anthony’s last year alive and what happened in the days leading up to his murder. 

Directed by Terry McDonough and written by Jimmy McGovern, the “what if” concept of “Anthony” could be considered tacky or offensive if this movie hadn’t been given the approval of Anthony’s mother Gee Walker, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie. Gee is convincingly portrayed by Rakie Ayola in the film. The movie’s overall tone is respectful of how it portrays Anthony Walker and his family. And for that reason, “Anthony” might be compelling enough to watch for some people.

The movie begins showing what Anthony could have been like at the age of 25. He’s at a black-tie award ceremony where someone is about to be announced as the winner of the Phoenix Turnaround Award, which is given to someone with a troubled past who turned their life around for the better. (This award is fictional and created for the movie.)

The winner is announced as Mick Whitfield (played by Bobby Schofield), a man in his 20s, who begins stuttering badly when he goes on stage to accept the award. It’s shown later in the movie in the flashback scenes that Mick has struggled with being a stutterer for years. His shame over this condition eventually led him into a life of alcoholism and then  homelessness after his wife Helen (Stephanie Hyam) kicked him out of the house because of his drinking problem.

But as viewers see from this award ceremony, Mick has gotten his life back on track. And while he’s nervously accepting his award on stage, he tells the audience that he wants to give his prize to Anthony Walker, because Anthony “deserves it more than I do.” Anthony (played by Taheeb Jimoh), who has been seated in the audience and cheering Mick on, goes up on stage to hug his friend Mick.

The rest of the movie shows Anthony’s life, year by year, in reverse chronological order, from ages 25 to age 18. At age 25, he is happily married with a baby daughter. The movie’s flashbacks show how Anthony met his wife Katherine (played by Julia Brown), their courtship, his marriage proposal, their wedding and the birth of their daughter. The story also shows how Anthony met Mick and how Mick’s alcoholism affected their up-and-down friendship.

Anthony comes from a working-class family that includes his parents Gee and Steven (played by Leo Wringer), who have a rocky marriage. Steven is frequently absent from the home, and by the time that Anthony has his wedding, Gee and Steven are barely tolerating each other. (During a family photo at the wedding, the photographer asks if someone should get Steven to be in the photo, and Gee says not to bother.)

Even though Gee and Steven have a frequently troubled relationship, their love for their children is indisputable. Anthony has four siblings: sister Steph (played by Dominique Moore), sister Dominque (played by Shaniqua Okwok), sister Angella (played by Ade Ajibade) and brother Daniel (played by Wesley Bozonga), who all look up to Anthony. Because Steven is often not present in the household, Anthony is closer to his mother than his father.

Anthony is a bright student and a caring human being who has goals to become a civil-rights attorney in the United States. As he explains to Katherine when they first begin dating each other, black people in America are in desperate need for social justice when it comes to police brutality: “In England. we’re stopped and searched. In America, we’re shot.” The movie also shows how Anthony spends time volunteering as an assistant coach for a high-school basketball team (it’s how he met Katherine, a coach for the girls’ soccer team at the school) and what happens when he applies for an internship at a law firm.

Jimoh admirably portrays Anthony as someone with a great deal of compassion and patience but also a strong sense of right and wrong, with no tolerance for people who break the law. He remains calm when he experiences blatant racism. And he tells people that the best way to deal with racists who want to pick a fight is to walk away or try to talk them out of it. Unfortunately, Anthony could not escape from the racists who were intent on murdering him.

If Anthony is the soul of the story, then his mother Gee is the heart. The way that Ayola depicts Gee’s beautiful relationship with Anthony is heartwarming. And the way that she expresses Gee’s pain after finding out what happened to Anthony after the attack is heartbreaking.

“Anthony” took some risks in how it created a “what if” movie about Anthony’s life, but it’s not a conventional story about a murder victim. It makes the point of how much of a terrible waste it was for Anthony to die so horribly and the void he has left behind. And although it will never be known what Anthony’s life would have been like if he were still alive, the movie capably shows how much of a positive impact he made in his short life. Just brace yourself for the movie’s inevitable tragic ending.

Peacock premiered “Anthony” on September 4, 2020. BBC One televised the movie in the United Kingdom in July 2020.

Review: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield,’ starring Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Eleazar and Morfydd Clark

August 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

“The Personal History of David Copperfield”

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Culture Representation: Taking place in Victorian-era England, the comedy/drama “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has a racially diverse cast (Asian, white and black) portraying the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An upwardly mobile young man named David Copperfield reflects on his life, which includes a rough childhood and discrimination over his social class. 

Culture Audience: “The Personal History of David Copperfield will appeal primarily to fans of the Charles Dickens book, on which the movie is based, as well to people who like modern twists on classic stories.

Tilda Swinton, Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie and Rosalind Eleazar in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Photo by Dean Rogers/Searchlight Pictures)

Writer/director Armando Iannucci brings his brand of sly and witty humor to his movie adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (based on Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”) and updates the film to have a multiracial cast in a way that is neither self-congratulatory nor self-conscious. The essence of the story, which is set in Victorian-era England, remains the same in the movie as it is in the book. But this unusual and inspired casting is one of the film’s more modern takes on the “David Copperfield” story. Let’s face it: Most filmmakers casting a movie version of “David Copperfield” would follow the predictable convention and stick to casting only white people in the main roles to reflect how the characters are described in the novel.

In “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the title character (played by Dev Patel in the movie) looks back on his life and describes how he felt during crucial points in his journey from childhood to adulthood. That flashback concept remains intact in the movie, without an over-reliance on voiceover narration. Instead, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” has fun playing with time and space, by having the adult David appearing in the flashback scenes with the child version of David (played by Jairaj Varsani), as if the adult David has gone back in time and can see his younger self.

People who’ve read the book already know how the story is going to end. But for anyone unfamiliar with the book, the movie creates a world that is both whimsical and bleak, depending on which part of David’s life that viewers are experiencing through his memories. Some of the characters border on parody, but that’s because the movie is meant to be a snappy satire on the rigid social class system that causes much of David’s worst misery throughout his life.

The movie portrays David’s dysfunctional childhood, in which he bounces from one home to another, and he experiences many insecurities over his identity and social acceptance. David was born into a family that didn’t fully accept him as a child. This rejection is demonstrated in the movie’s opening scene that shows his mother Clara (played by Morfydd Clark) giving birth to him in Blunderstone, Suffolk, and her husband’s domineering, unmarried sister Betsey Trotwood (played by Tilda Swinton) leaving in an angry huff when she finds out that the baby is a boy, not a girl. In an Oedipal twist in this movie’s casting, actress Clark, who plays David’s mother Clara, also plays someone who becomes one of David’s love interests when he’s an adult: ditsy Dora Spendlow, who treats her Maltese dog like an inseparable child.

David’s mother Clara becomes a widow when he’s still a baby, which is a slight departure from the book, when Clara became a widow before David was born. Even though Clara has help from an optimistic maid named Clara Peggotty, also known as Peggotty (played by Daisy May Cooper), David’s mother wants a more stable home for her child (whom she calls Davy), so she sends him away more than once to live with another family.

The first time he’s sent away, it’s to live in Yarmouth with Peggotty’s brother Daniel Pegotty (played by Paul Whitehouse), a fisherman who lives in an upside-down boat parked on the sand. Daniel lives with three other people: two teenage orphans named Ham (played by Anthony Welsh) and Emily (played by Aimée Kelly) and an elderly woman named Mrs. Gummidge (played by Rosaleen Linehan). Ham and Emily become fast friends with David. It’s one of the happiest times in David’s childhood, as he finds complete acceptance in this family, which calls him Master Copperfield.

When his mother sends for David to come back to live with her, he finds out that his mother has married a cruel tyrant named Edward Murdstone (played by Darren Boyd), who has an equally horrible sister named Jane Murdstone (played Gwendoline Christie), and the siblings both treat young David as if he’s a wretched nuisance. Jane is so hateful toward David that she calls him “it,” while Edward get physically abusive if David doesn’t obey his orders.

During an incident in which Edward begins to beat up David because David couldn’t show that he had completed his education lessons, David bites Edward’s hand and almost gets away from him. David mother’s Clara just passively does nothing but cry while her son is being beaten. Soon after this incident, David is, in his words, “banished to London,” where he is forced to work in a wine bottling factory that is partially owned by the Murdstone family.

David finds out that his boss knows about the abuse incident in which David bit Edward Murdstone’s hand in self-defense, because when David defies his boss’ orders, David is forced to wear a sign on the job that says, “He bites.” It’s another way that David is humiliated and made to feel like an outsider. David is also given a different first name at almost every place he lives, which also adds to his insecurities over his identity and sense of not really belonging anywhere.

A series of incidents lead David to some more homes until he reaches adulthood. He lives for a period of time with debt-ridden married father Mr. Wilkins Micawber (played by Peter Capaldi), who rescues David from a street altercation. Estranged aunt Betsey Trotwood then lets David live with her, on the condition that David change his first name to Trotwood. David is also sent to live in a boarding school, where he meets James Steerforth (played by Aneurin Barnard), a popular and privileged older student who insists on calling David the nickname Daisy. It’s an obvious way for Steerforth to show his dominance and emasculate David, who greatly admires Steerforth and wants to be accepted into Steerforth’s clique.

While living with his aunt Betsey, David meets some other people who have a major impact on his life. They include the eccentric Mr. Dick (played by Hugh Laurie), who has deep admiration for Betsey; an alcoholic lawyer named Mr. Wickfield (played by Benedict Wong); Mr. Wickfield’s daughter Agnes (played by Rosalind Eleazar), who becomes a close friend/adviser to David; Uriah Heep (played by Ben Whishaw), Mr. Wickfield’s nervous-tempered clerk; and the aforementioned Dora Spendlow, whom David becomes infatuated with immediately upon meeting her.

After being treated as an inconvenience for most of his childhood, David starts to gain confidence and a sense of his true self. He develops an unexpected friendship with Mr. Dick, who seems like an antisocial grouch (and who is probably mentally ill, since Mr. Dick hears voices no one else can hear) until David makes a kite and he flies the kite with Mr. Dick. This carefree activity lifts Mr. Dick’s spirits and he begins to trust and open up to David.

And as David becomes more educated at the boarding school, his job prospects improve. He decides to become a proctor because Dora’s father is a proctor. David becomes so enamored with Dora that all he can think about is eventually marrying her. There’s an amusing montage in the movie demonstrating David’s amorous obsession for Dora, by showing that he imagines seeing Dora in the faces of several people in his life.

Although “The Personal History of David Copperfield” is nearly two hours long (116 minutes, to be exact), the movie has a brisk and energetic pace that Iannucci is known for, as seen in his previous films 2009’s “In the Loop” and 2017’s “The Death of Stalin.” Characters are often quirky and/or sarcastic, with Swinton (as Betsey Trotwood) and Laurie (as Mr. Dick), standing out as the kookiest personalities of the bunch. Their eccentric nature is ironic because Betsey and Mr. Dick are not the more sympathetic characters, but they are the ones who set David on a path to having a stable home life. Patel and Whishaw also do quite well in their respective roles, as their personalities go through a metamorphosis.

The movie’s production design by Cristina Casali and the cinematography by Zac Nicholson wonderfully bring to life David’s memories that are a reflection of his emotions and maturity level at the time of his memories. The brightly colored Boat of Peggotty house from his childhood is shown as almost like a fantasy playhouse on the inside. The bottle factory is dark and oppressive. And the scenery around David becomes warmer and more sophisticated as he starts to grow up and becomes more educated, independent and self-assured.

On the surface, “The Personal History of David Copperfield” doesn’t seem to have much appeal to people who have no interest in seeing a movie that takes place in 1800s England. However, much of the themes and social commentary in the story remain relevant to modern audiences. And if people want to see a witty version of a Dickens classic in a movie that doesn’t follow all the predictable ways of telling the story, then “The Personal History of David Copperfield” delivers this experience in a frequently amusing way.

Searchlight Pictures released “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in January 2020.

Review: ‘Summerland,’ starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay

August 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

“Summerland” 

Directed by Jessica Swale

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from the 1920s to 1970s (and primarily during World War II in the early 1940s), the dramatic film “Summerland” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A reclusive writer who’s a confirmed spinster must battle against prejudices (including her own) about raising a child during World War II, when she’s forced to become a foster parent to an evacuated boy, as she struggles to come to terms with a secret love affair that broke her heart.

Culture Audience: “Summerland” will appeal primarily to people who like period dramas that are about parental issues or LGBTQ issues.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

The emotional drama “Summerland,” which is set in England, takes viewers on a journey of someone who never wanted to become parent but is forced to take care of an evacuee boy during World War II. The experience has a profound effect on the child and his foster parent in more ways than one, in a story that has a few big surprises. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, “Summerland” also serves as a reminder of how it’s more important to judge a a family by how they treat each other, rather than by society prejudices of what a family is supposed to look like.

The movie begins in 1975, in a rural beachside area of Kent, where reclusive and cranky writer Alice Lamb (played by Penelope Wilton), who’s in her 70s, is working at home on a book, by using a typewriter. She’s temporarily interrupted by two girls, about 8 or 9 years old, who are at her front door, asking for donations to help the elderly. Alice rudely tells the girls before she slams the door on them, “You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”

Astute viewers will notice that that the two little girls who were at Alice’s door have a strong physical resemblance to two women whose close relationship is revealed later in the story. Seeing these two little girls together appears to have triggered some of Alice’s memories, because most the movie then flashes back to Alice (played by Gemma Arterton) when she was in her early 40s, living in the same house, during World War II.

Alice was a reclusive writer back then too. She has an unpleasant demeanor and a moody reputation. People don’t know if she’s going to ignore them or snap at them. And because Alice is a never-married, childless woman of certain age who lives alone, she is the subject of a lot of the town’s gossip, with some of the townspeople believing that she might be a witch. A few of the residents have given her the unflattering nickname “The Beast of the Beach,” which is what they call Alice behind her back.

It’s revealed later in the story that Alice (who has no siblings) doesn’t seem to have any close family members or friends. Her mother isn’t really mentioned, but Alice’s father played a huge role in her life by encouraging her to follow her dreams. Alice’s father died when she was a child, and Alice was devastated by this loss.

Alice isn’t just a cantankerous eccentric. She seems to go out of her way to insult or hurt people. For example, she goes into a candy shop and sees that a little girl wants to buy some chocolate, but the girl’s mother says no because they can’t afford it, Alice buys the chocolate that the child wants. But instead of generously giving the chocolate to the little girl, Alice keeps the chocolate for herself and smirks outside when she can hear the little girl crying in dismay inside the shop.

It’s made abundantly clear that Alice doesn’t like children. And so, she’s very shocked when a boy in his early teens is placed into her care, despite her protests. The boy’s name is Frank (played by Lucas Bond), he’s an evacuee from London, and Alice is told that she received a letter from the foster-care system saying that she was expected to take care of him. Alice claims she never received the letter.

Alice tries to come up with excuses not take the child into her care, but the foster-care system is overwhelmed, and Alice is told she has no choice to take Frank until they can find another foster home for him. Frank’s father is serving in the military during the war, while his mother is still in London. Frank’s mother sent Frank away for his safety, since London was the target of intense bombing at the time.

During Frank’s first evening at Alice’s house, she treats him in an annoyed and dismissive manner. For dinner, she plops down raw food on a plate and says, “You don’t expect me to cook for you. There’s the stove.” At night, she doesn’t really care if Frank will sleep well, and she doesn’t do anything to make him feel comfortable. When Frank tells her that he usually has a glass of milk before he goes to sleep, Alice ignores him.

Upon his arrival in Kent, Frank is enrolled in a school called St. Nicholas, where the kindly headmaster Mr. Sullivan (played by Tom Courtenay) provides some comic relief to the story because of his sometimes befuddled manner. During Frank’s first class session at the school, teacher Mrs. Bassett (played by Jessica Gunning) tells everyone to be nice to Frank when she introduces him to the students in the class. Mrs. Bassett assigns a seat next to an unfriendly girl named Edie Corey (played by Dixie Egerickx), who treats Frank like an unwelcome outsider.

When Mrs. Bassett says that Frank and Edie have to be class partners, Edie tells Frank, “I don’t believe in partners or sharing. I’m an individualist. I’m a maverick. Mavericks are free thinkers.”

Edie’s personality is basically a lot like Alice’s. And so, later in the movie, when Edie and Alice first meet, they seem to recognize these unpleasant traits in each other and clash later during a crucial part of the story. Edie also has an additional prejudice against Alice because Edie’s grandmother Margot (played by Siân Phillips) is one of the townspeople who thinks that Alice is a witch.

Edie and Alice eventually warm up to Frank, who is an inquisitive and amiable child, although understandably feeling anxious about when he’ll be able to see his parents again. Alice gradually opens up to Frank about her spiritual beliefs (she’s a pagan and an atheist), her interests (writing, reading and looking for mirages) and her love life (she says she loved someone once, but it was a long time ago). Unlike other people, Frank is not judgmental over Alice being a spinster with no children, so she appreciates that he seems to have an open mind.

Alice’s love affair is shown in flashbacks throughout the film. Alice met Vera (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love of her life, when they were both attending Oxford University in the 1920s. They had an instant connection and become close very quickly.

Vera and Alice also lived together, but they kept their romance a secret because homosexuality was considered very taboo in that time and place. And so, Alice and Vera pretended to the world that they were platonic roommates. However, Vera and Alice had very different visions of their future.

Alice was more inclined to want to live openly as a lesbian couple, while Vera was still very much closeted. What ultimately drove them apart was Vera’s desire to become a mother, which Vera said was more important to her than anything else—even more important than her relationship with Alice. It’s for this reason that Vera broke up with Alice and walked out of Alice’s life.

This heartbreak puts into better context why Alice is so embittered about love and seems repulsed by the idea of taking care of a child. But as Alice and Frank get to know each other, they both realize that they’ve grown more attached to each other than they thought they would be. And they start to learn that being a good parent doesn’t mean that you have to be heterosexual and married.

When Frank and Alice start to talk about heaven, Alice tells Frank that “heaven was made up to make Christians feel better.” She says that if heaven were real, what about the people who died before Christianity existed? “Where did their souls go?” she asks Frank, who can’t answer the question. Alice tells Frank that does sort of believe in a celestial place called Summerland, which she describes as a “pagan heaven” that isn’t based on religion but a peaceful state of mind.

And one day, when Frank discovers an old music album of Alice’s and asks if they can play the album, she snaps angrily at him and tells him now. She says the album was a gift from a female friend she used to have. Based on her emotionally raw reaction, Frank can tell that this album has brought back some painful memories.

Frank astutely guesses that the album was a gift from the “past love” Alice told him about on another day. When Alice asks Frank, “Do you think it’s strange if a woman loved another woman?” When Frank says no, Alice bursts into tears at his unconditional acceptance.

Alice then tells him that most people think that same-sex love is wicked: “They think it’s a sin and we should burn in hell.” Frank replies, “It’s not as bad as marrying someone you don’t like.” And then it’s Alice’s turn to correctly guess something about Frank’s life: Frank’s parents do not have a happy marriage.

“Summerland” doesn’t clutter the story with a lot of unnecessary characters. The movie shows Alice and Frank’s relationship evolving in ways that are sometimes sweet, sometimes uncomfortable, but emotionally realistic, for the most part. Arterton’s Alice is the center of the movie, which she carries quite well, because the actress understands that it’s not about making Alice likeable but making her believable.

As foster child Frank, Bond does a very good acting job, since Frank is the person who gets Alice to take a hard look at herself and face some of the issues that she’s been hiding underneath her gruff exterior. Frank also learns some harsh lessons about life during his time with Alice. “Summerland” has some moments that blatantly pull at people’s heartstrings, but if people look beyond the film’s sappy moments, there’s an impactful message about being open to change and finding love in unexpected places.

IFC Films released “Summerland” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Carmilla,’ starring Jessica Raine, Tobias Menzies, Greg Wise, Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingnau

July 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hannah Rae and Devrim Lingnau in “Carmilla” (Photo by Nick Wall/Film Movement)

“Carmilla” 

Directed by Emily Harris

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1780s rural England, the drama “Carmilla” has an nearly all-white cast (with one black person) representing the  wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash:  When a mysterious teenager recuperates from a carriage accident in an unfamiliar family’s home, her presence causes conflicts among the widower, his teenage daughter and governess who live there.

Culture Audience: “Carmilla” will appeal primarily to people who like coming-of-age dramas that have arthouse sensibilities.

Jessica Raine and Hannah Rae in “Carmilla” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement))

The haunting period drama “Carmilla” is a perfect example of a movie that does a lot with a little. The film’s cast consists of less than 10 people, and the movie was filmed in just 22 days, according to the “Carmilla” production notes. But “Carmilla” (beautifully written and directed Emily Harris) far surpasses many other movies with considerably larger budgets and casts.

Based on the 1872 Gothic novella “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, this movie adaptation makes a few changes from the source material. The novella was set in 19th century Austria, while the movie takes place in 18th century England—the 1780s, to be exact. Many of the characters in the book are not in the movie. The story’s innocent teenager is named Laura in the book but is named Lara in the movie. And the biggest change in the movie is that it’s not a vampire story, although the erotic and intimate undertones of sharing blood are definitely part of the movie.

It was a bold and ultimately wise choice for writer/director Harris not to make this movie version of “Carmilla” a vampire story. First, it would put this movie in the horror genre, which would distract from the true essence of the story: It’s a meditation about how two teenage girls react to a repressive society when the girls start to have feelings for each other that go beyond friendship.

And secondly, any film about a teenage vampire is going to get inevitable comparisons to the blockbuster “Twilight” movie series, which was a hit with audiences but ridiculed by more artistically minded people, such as movie critics and filmmakers. And there have already been a horror-comedy Web series and a movie based on the “Carmilla” novella.

The “Carmilla” movie from writer/director Harris is imbued with a quiet, deliberate aura that manages to convey the oppressive but physically lush atmosphere where the story is set. It’s an insular world where disobedience and being different, especially if one is of the female gender, are met with cruel punishment. In a rural, isolated manor, 15-year-old Lara (played by Hanna Rae) has a very regimented and sheltered life, but she has the type of curiosity that makes it apparent that she’s feeling stifled.

Lara has an emotionally distant widower father named Mr. Bauer (played by Greg Wise), so the main adult figure in her life is Lara’s strict and very superstitious governess Miss Fontaine (played by Jessica Raine), who is in her 30s and who controls almost every aspect of Lara’s life. When Lara asks questions such as, “Where do spirits go?,” Miss Fontaine tells her about heaven.

There’s a dark side to Lara having Miss Fontaine as a teacher/authority figure. Miss Fontaine, just like many people of that era, believes that being left-handed is a sign of evil. And because Lara is left-handed, Miss Fontaine has inflicted some torturous methods to force Lara not to use her left hand when she’s writing, including hitting Lara’s left hand and making Lara wear her left arm in a tightly bound sling.

Miss Fontaine also physically abuses Lara by hitting her repeatedly as a way of punishing Lara for other reasons. One of these punishments happens when Lara is caught hiding one of her father’s books that has illustrations of people being tortured. Miss Fontaine severely disciplines Lara about the book because the teenager took the book from her father’s study without his permission.

“You and your left hand, playing with the devil,” Miss Fontaine scolds Lara while physically assaulting her. Miss Fontaine also orders Lara to pray to repent for her sins. There are two other servants shown in the Bauer household—a maid named Margaret (played by Lorna Gayle) and a stableman named Paul (played by Daniel Tuite)—but Miss Fontaine is at the top of the household’s employee hierarchy. Margaret and Paul are essentially supporting characters that passively follow orders.

Being an only child with no friends has made Lara a very lonely teenager. She has been anticipating the visit of another teenager named Charlotte, who is the daughter of a family friend. But Charlotte has become very ill, so her visit has been postponed. (Charlotte had planned to stay at the Bauer home for several months.) There’s a scene where Lara, with a melancholy expression on her face, burns a letter that she had written to Charlotte, since it doesn’t make sense to send the letter now that Charlotte is too ill to write back.

The movie also shows how the isolation and physical abuse that Lara is enduring has taken a toll on her mental health. In another scene, Lara is shown waving her left hand over a candle flame, until she deliberately lets the hand linger too long over the flame and she gets a minor burn.

The household gets a jolt from its usual monotony when a teenage girl (played by Devrim Lingnau), who’s around Lara’s age, is unexpectedly brought to the manor. She has been in a carriage accident, where she was the only passenger and the driver has died. The identity of this girl is a complete mystery.

A local physician named Doctor Renquist (played by Tobias Menzies) comes to the manor to examine this enigmatic girl and finds no visible injuries. However, she is mute. Is it because of the trauma of the accident or something else? The decision is made to keep this girl isolated in the house until she is well enough to speak and they can find out who her family is. Miss Tobias orders Lara to stay away from the girl.

Lara can’t understand why she can’t see or talk to this girl. In a private conversation with tells Miss Fontaine, Lara asks if the mystery girl is really Charlotte. Lara tells Miss Fontaine a theory that the girl might be Charlotte who could have miraculously recovered from her illness, and her carriage crashed in a rush to get to the manor.

Miss Fontaine firmly shuts down that theory because she says that if the girl were Charlotte, Lara’s father would have recognized her. This scene adeptly shows how Lara is so desperate for companionship that her imagination has gone wild about who this mystery girl might be. The expression on Miss Fontaine’s face is one of concern and dread.

Of course, the inevitable happens, and Lara visits the forbidden room where the mystery girl is. At first, the girl remains mute. But eventually, she shocks Lara by speaking to her. The girl still won’t say anything about who she is, including her name. Instead, she tells Lara that Lara can think of a name to call her. The mystery girl likes the name Carmilla, so they decide that will be her name.

Carmilla and Lara begin to meet in secret, and they become fast friends. Lara is entranced by Carmilla, who is a lot more worldly and sophisticated than Lara, even though Carmilla still withholds a lot of information about herself. And there’s a growing attraction between Lara and Carmilla that is more than platonic. They play games involving blood vows and breathing/air restriction that have not-so-subtle tones of eroticism, which is expressed when Lara and Carmilla begin kissing and and canoodling with each other.

Miss Fontaine senses that something has changed with Lara, because Lara is at an age when she will be curious about sex. The governess has also noticed how Lara is fascinated with the mystery girl in the home because Lara keeps wanting to talk to Miss Fontaine about the girl.

In a private conversation, Miss Fontaine decides to have a talk with Lara about sexuality without going into uncomfortable details. Miss Fontaine tells Lara that Lara will have certain feelings now that she’s becoming a young woman, but she must learn to control those feelings. The governess also opens up a little about her past (by hinting that she used to be promiscuous), by telling Lara that when she was younger, she got in trouble by acting on those feelings too much.

Miss Fontaine tells Lara that she wished that she knew when she was younger when she was acting on those feelings that all she really wanted was excitement. “Don’t confuse your feelings, Lara,” Miss Fontaine warns. “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

One of the best aspects of “Carmilla” is that it doesn’t just take the easy route of focusing mainly on the budding relationship between Lara and Carmilla. The movie also masterfully shows how a control-freak like Miss Fontaine isn’t in control of her own life as much as she’d like to pretend that she is. It’s a subtle commentary on the rigid roles that were forced upon women in society back then.

In many ways, this stern governess (who does not seem to have any family or friends) is just as stifled and isolated as Lara—perhaps even more so, because Miss Fontaine’s services in the Bauer household will no longer be needed when Lara becomes an adult. (And in those days, it was common for girls to get married at the age of 15 or 16.) And because Miss Fontaine is a childless spinster, she’s somewhat of an outcast herself in that society. Miss Fontaine has less options than Lara, whose family wealth makes Lara’s future more secure than Miss Fontaine’s.

But, for now, Miss Fontaine sees a lot of her younger self in Lara—and she doesn’t like what she sees. And there’s an unspoken power struggle between Miss Fontaine and Carmilla over Lara’s attention, which motivates certain choices that are made by the end of the story. This movie version of “Camilla” also has more overt messaging than the novella about homophobia and how religion can play a role in mistreating others who are “different.”

“Carmilla” presents a mesmerizing Gothic atmosphere, due in large part to top-notch work from cinematographer Michael Wood, composer Philip Selway, production designer Alexandra Walker (a “Harry Potter” film alum) and Oscar-winning costume designer John Bright (“A Room With a View”). Selway, who’s the drummer for Radiohead, has his original, appropriately haunting song “Ghosts” playing during the end credits. All three actresses in the “Carmilla” power struggle—Raine as Miss Fontaine, Lingnau (who makes her feature-film debut in “Carmilla”) as Carmilla and Rae as Lara—do a superb job in their roles.

Writer/director Harris should be commended for making “Carmilla” a movie worth seeing for anyone who likes to immerse themselves in a world that can be gorgeous to look at but menacing at the same time. People who want to see an exact replication of the original “Carmilla” novella might be disappointed. However, today’s movie audiences have certain over-the-top bloody expectations for vampire films that would not have served this movie well. Thankfully, the filmmakers of this “Carmilla” movie did not take that predictable route, which would have cheapened the message of this movie.

Film Movement released “Carmilla” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 17, 2020.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium”

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. Tom and Gemma look in the house’s refrigerator and find it has a gift basket containing a bottle of champagne and strawberries, which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials have mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, no matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.