SUMMERLAND (2020)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We get our first glimpse of Alice Lamb as an older woman in 1975 pounding away on her Royal typewriter before abruptly and rudely shooing neighborhood kids away from her door. We then flashback thirty-something years to World War II, and find a younger version of Alice still clacking away on the same Royal and still chasing off the local youngsters. Segments with the older Alice bookend the film, but most of our time is spent with the younger Alice in the first feature film from writer-director Jessica Swale, a renowned playwright.

Gemma Arterton (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) plays younger Alice, a writer and researcher based in the countryside of Kent. She’s not just a reclusive writer, but we learn she’s holding a grudge against the world ever since she was denied true love while at University. The townspeople view her as antisocial, while the local kids refer to as a witch. When the local school Headmaster (Tom Courtenay) refers to her “stories”, she quickly corrects him to “Academic Thesis.” It’s no wonder she’s earned the label, “Beast on the Beach.”

During the German Blitz, many London families sent their kids to live with families in the much safer countryside. One day an official brings young Frank (Lucas Bond) to Alice’s home for temporary guardianship, and she responds “I don’t want him” … yes, in front of the boy. Frank’s father is fighting during the war, while his mother is working with the ministry. Of course, we know that Alice’s iceberg of a heart will eventually thaw, and it begins when Frank expresses an interest in the legends and folklore at the center of Alice’s research. Of particular interest to Frank is Summerland, the pagan term for afterlife, and the corresponding images.

As an evacuee, Frank is a bit of an outsider at school, but he makes friends with Edie (Dixie Egerickx, THE LITTLE STRANGER, 2018), a spirited young lady who, like most kids, doesn’t much trust Alice. It’s interesting to watch as Frank and Alice reluctantly grow closer, but this is war time, and joy is sometimes difficult to come by. However, this odd couple seem good for a life lessons to the other.

Penelope Wilton plays the older Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights up the screen in only a few scenes, and it’s Ms. Arterton’s best work since TAMARA DREWE (2010). Young Alice experiences visions and memories of a past life not meant to be. The twist is quite obvious, yet no less effective. Ms. Swale’s film is sentimental and melodramatic, and probably employs a few too many clichés. Yet, although predictable, it does offer hope; and given the times we are in, a hopeful message is quite welcome – as is the reminder that “stories have to come from somewhere.”

IFC will release the film VOD/Digital on July 31, 2020

watch the trailer:


HOW TO BUILD A GIRL (2020)

May 7, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. British writer Caitlin Moran has adapted her own 2014 semi-autobiographical novel-memoir for the screen, because who better to write about the coming-of-age of a talented outcast than that talented outcast herself? Given the profusion of coming-of-age movies that hit the screen every year, it’s a welcome change when one takes a different approach. And this one does just that.

Beanie Feldstein (BOOKSMART, and Jonah Hill’s sister) stars as Johanna Morrigan, replete with British accent. Johanna is a dreamer, and as she sits in her usual spot at the library, she fantasizes about Mr. Darcy riding in to save her from this mundane life. We quickly learn that Johanna is bright, and treated as quite the misfit at school. Even her English teacher asks her to scale back her writing assignments. See, in addition to being a world class dreamer, Johanna is a very talented writer … and she sees that as her only means to escape Wolverhampton.

At home, Johanna has a “Wall of Gods” featuring photographs of her literary and historical heroes, including: Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Bronte sisters, Sig Freud (Michael Sheen), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton). Johanna speaks to these photos, and they answer her. Johanna’s family hustles to stay just above poverty. Her dad’s (Paddy Considine) dream of rock stardom has passed, and now he breeds black market Border Collies while remaining optimistic about life. Her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from post-partem depression after giving birth to twins (kids number 3 and 4).

Johanna shares a small bedroom space (divided by “the Berlin wall”) with her cool brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). We know he’s cool, because he hangs out in the cool room at school – a room to which Johanna has never been invited. After embarrassing herself on a televised poetry reading show (hosted by Chris O’Dowd), Johanna is encouraged by brother Krissi to apply for a music critic job at a local publication. Her heartfelt submission on “Annie” the musical causes guffawing among the ultra-cool writing staff at the magazine; yet her writing skill and persistence land her a shot. It’s at this point that things change for Johanna.

An unusual interview with popular and earnest singer John Kite (Alfie Allen, brother of singer Lily Allen and son of actor Keith Allen) results in a connection and teenage crush, leading to a sappy article rejected by her employer. Given a second chance by the magazine, Johanna’s alter-ego Dolly Wilde does in fact turn wild. Her ‘bad girl’ image and mean spirited critiques of bands gain her a cult following – a type of notoriety. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but when the pen is used as a sword, the damage is severe. What follows, of course, are the inevitable hard (and painful) life lessons.

Director Coky Giedroyc has spent most of her career on TV shows, but she has a feel for this material. However, it’s mostly the no-holds-barred performance of Beanie Feldstein that makes this work – both the comedy and drama. We’ve seen the outsider with talent many times before, and because of that, expectations are a bit low going in. This time, a different twist and passionate filmmakers and actors turn this into quite an entertaining 100 minutes.

IFC Films will release the film on VOD on Friday, May 8, 2020

watch the trailer:


VITA & VIRGINIA (2019)

August 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The historical landscape of relationships is littered with the remains of artist couples who began with a cosmic connection and ended with a sonic boom. Add in the socially toxic matter of same-sex attraction from a century ago, and you have a starting point for the romance-friendship-inspiration between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Director Chanya Button co-wrote the script with Eileen Atkins, and it’s adapted from Ms. Atkins play and the personal letters of Virginia and Vita … correspondence that covered many years and hundreds of letters.

Gemma Arterton (TAMARA DREWE, 2010 and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) stars as writer Vita Sackville-West, a successful poet, novelist, and columnist. Vita was also known for her free spirited ways, and sometimes scandalous behavior. Virginia Woolf is played by Elizabeth Debicki (“The Night Manager”, THE GREAT GATSBY), and she does really nice work capturing the troubled genius, and the glimmers of hope during her time with Vita. The two women were so very different in their approach to life and writing, although each faced their own challenges.

We see their first meeting, and the immediate enchantment that occurs as their eyes meet across the room. However, what makes their relationship interesting is the long and winding path to consummation. The interesting parts come as Vita toys with the fragile Virginia, though it’s clear their connection is quite strong. Though the connection was strong, the relationship was quite complex. Vita was a fan of Virginia’s talent. Virginia was an admirer of Vita’s strength and confidence. They seemed to push each other – sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.

The film opens as Ms. Woolf’s book “Jacob’s Room” is being typeset and printed. It’s quite an artistic way to show the mechanics of the process, and credit goes to Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho for a segment that would typically be little more than filler. We learn about Vita’s secretly “open” marriage to diplomat Harold Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and her constant battle with her mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) over scandals and the family reputation. Virginia’s husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) runs their printing business, and is seen as vital to his wife’s emotional stability, despite the void in other marital aspects. Virginia’s artist sister Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) is quite an interesting character whose backstory (also a part of the Bloomsbury Group) is teased enough that she might deserve her own film.

The film features a couple of memorable lines of dialogue, both spoken by Vita. During a BBC radio program she boldly claims “Independence has no sex”, and in an early discussion with Virginia states “Popularity is no sign of genius”. Vita’s brazen step traveling as a man with her previous lover Violet Keppel is mentioned, but mostly this is focused on the class differences and the ‘snatched moments’ for Vita and Virginia. Vita’s exotic spirit and Virginia’s struggle with mental health are made clear (even using special effects for the latter). “Visions” of conversations bring the words on the letter pages to life, though it does seem that the filmmakers played things a bit too safe in order to capture a mainstream audience. The music of Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister) brings a contemporary feel but it’s at times in contrast to the high gloss presentation. For the women who wrote and inspired the amazing novel “Orlando”, and led one of the more tumultuous historical lesbian affairs, it could be argued that they deserved a bit more risk taking on the big screen. Still, “X” marks the spot for Virginia’s writing room, and we do understand why discretion might be the right call.

watch the trailer: