A few solid debuts this week bringw up the avergae start rating to ***1/2
spy thrills: THE COURIER; SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
laughs: FREE BYRD
heart-warming doc: FRANCESCO
THE COURIER (UK 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Ever since James Bond made his successful appearance in films in the 60’s, countless spy films have sprouted up including those involving reluctant spies who are recruited to do the job. Having just seen the 1966 Bond spy spoof WHERE THE SPIES ARE directed by Val Guest starring David Niven, in which a local doctor, Dr. Jason Love is recruited as a cold war spy to fulfill a very important secret mission in the Middle East, (I love old movies), the main premise of THE COURIER appears to read identical paths. In THE COURIER, based on true events, as the audience is informed at the film’s start concerns a British businessman recruited as a courier because he would be unsuspected by the KGB. THE COURIER unlike WHERE THE SPIES ARE is no comedy but a red serious thriller, the tone and mood of the film established with warning words at the start of the film: that humanity is about to be destroyed by the nuclear arms threat on both the Soviet Union and American sides.
As Khrushchev and his American counterparts traded threats, a Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) contacts the American Embassy in Moscow with crucial information. THE COURIER is a true-life spy thriller, the story of an unassuming British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. At the behest of the UK’s MI-6 and a CIA operative (Rachel Brosnahan), he forms a covert, dangerous partnership with Penkovsky in an effort to provide crucial intelligence needed to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Cumberbatch is excellent as the reluctant spy, reprising a similar role as in THE IMITATION GAME but it is Ninidze who steals the show. It is these two brilliant actors who steer the film to its success as an effective spy thriller.
Quite a number of dialogue lines are priceless, especially in the meetings of the two ‘spies’ despite the somewhat incredible story that is supposedly based on true events, The script goes into the daily routines of the two men for two reasons. One to invoke sympathy for them so tat the audience can relate and feel for both families. The other is to make the plot more believable with a regular family shown to be put at risk. The cheesy suspense soundtrack also works wonders, surprisingly.
Spoiler alert on this paragraph: Watching this film twice enabled me to notice the brilliance in one scene which captures both the tragedy and humour of the situation. Oleg speaks to Greville about his aim of defecting with his family to Montana. “I would become a cowboy,” the Russian laughs. “I would love to see that.” is Greville’s reply. Looking into the future and the ending of the film, the sadness is that Oleg is killed and does not make his dream come true.
What eventually makes THE COURIER so engaging and entertaining a spy fluff is its choice dialogue, impeccable acting on both sides (Soviet Union and British) and period setting.
FRANCESCO (USA/Czech Republic 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky
Jesus said in the Gospel according to St. Mark in Mark 13:31: “Go into the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation. The doc FRANCESCO begins with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “Go into the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation and if necessary, use words.” In the doc, it is shown that it is the actions of the Pope that count, but he speaks too, mainly in Italian and Spanish.
As a film reviewer, I have the highest respect for a few notables in the world. One of these is Pope Francis, known in this doc as just Francesco. Foremost is that he is a good man. He is also the first pope to endorse same-sex civil unions. In an interview in the film, Pope Francis supported same-sex civil union, stating that "Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that.” This passage was from an interview from 2019, but this passage had been cut from public releases at the time.
When watching the doc on the Pope, one cannot help but recall a man who is and has done the complete opposite - an evil and selfish man at heart who would not care about his neighbour, friend, supporter or anyone else. Yes, ex-President Donald Trump who for the most part, would destroy the planet Earth that we know, and deny the effects of climate change for the purpose of selfishness. It is so tempting for director Afineevsky to bring up Trump’s name and to compare him with the devil, but he has done so in one of the film’s angriest segments. This is the one part in which the Pope condemns Trump for building the US/Mexican Wall.
FRANCESCO is about the life and the teaching of Pope Francis. It contains numerous interviews with Francis, some of his family members, Benedict XVI, and other people. The film is centered around contemporary issues, and the role of the Catholic Church in searching those who suffer injustice. The film also focuses on people who have been sentimentally touched by Pope Francis, such as "Myanmar's displaced Rohingya community, members of which Francis met in Bangladesh in 2017; the 12 Muslim refugees the pope brought to Italy at the end of his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016; and the clergy abuse victims Francis originally incensed during his 2018 visit to Chile.
The film also touches the life of the Pope before he became a Pope, of his past in Argentina. Every person has some downfall and Francesco has to deal with bad press and some unaccepted past actions. One can also see that pride has also consumed the Pope as is observed in one scene where he just dismissed claims of slander just because he is so well-known he can. To his credit, he denounces this mistake later on and corrects his error, showing him to be the man he was meant to be. He fired 9 Chilean bishops.
FRANCESCO is a warm hearted feel-good documentary proving there is hope for the human race, that there are good people who will devote their entire life to help and serve others.
FREE BYRD (USA 2020) ***1/2
Directed by Tony Vidal
FREE BIRD is one of those low budget comedies about old people that many will dismiss as a waste of time for movies made for older folk. Two old fogies in a male buddy movie involving some high jinx on a road trip sounds like a movie that one would avoid. The premise is simple and does not sound too promising. But given the film’s limitations, FREE BYRD manages to come up with a solid score, rising above its material while being charming and yes, entertaining at the same time.
A lot of the movie rests upon the film’s protagonist, a chubby middle-aged under achieving van driver named Jay (Randy Nazarian). Nazarian is an actor full of every that reminds one immediate of Joe Pesci with a few identical mannerisms of Richard Simmons, especially in the scene where he runs, panicked in the motel, at the disappearance of his passenger, his arms flailing around. Nazarian has the gift of not being annoying given that his character is a loud mouth talker, offering advice to anybody at any chance he gets.
Vidal’s film begins with the introduction of his two characters, a middle aged Jay and a senior Harry. Both have problems with their children “The more you know the less they think of you,” says Harry. “Or is not easy being a parent,” says Jay. “It is not easy being a kid either,” remark’s Harry. There are a lot of amusing sayings that ring pretty true. Harry is put into a home after is assigned to drive Harry (Raymond J. Barry), to a new home. Along the way they have a series of misadventures, including being picked up by a troupe of burlesque dancers led by Red (Shondrella Avery) and performing an impromptu comedy act. An enlightening journey that gives both men new perspectives on life.
The old adage of not giving up and to live a little applies to Vidal’s well intentioned comedy as well. As the two old fogies prove, there is still much to learn and appreciate in a ‘coming-off-age’ adventure.
The film in its story allows the audience to see the two points of view of a relationship problem - that the problem could come from either the father’s or son’s point of view. As Jay is the age of a son and Harry the age of a father, one can see that the problem arising from either side. Director Vidal also has the knack for perfect timing - in his comedy as well as in the sweeter moments.
There is no great need to analyze this little comedy for all its flaws or achievements. But it is good to do so in order to see how this sweet little film succeeds. Given what it is, instead of being sentimental rubbish or an unfunny road trip comedy, FREE BYRD turns out to be an enjoyable little flick that delivers a message that one should pay more attention to one’s parents and to live life.
NOBODY (USA 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
Everyone loves to see in a film a mild and meek mannered person pushed to the limit and then taking control using his or her inner strengths never realized before. John Cassevetes’ GLORIA (1980) had Gena Rowlands protect the orphaned son of a mob’s accountant informant. Sam Peckinpah had Dustin Hoffman also pushed to the limit in order to protect his wife Susan George in THE STRAW DOGS (1971). In this latest thriller from director Ilya Naishuller (HARDCORE HENRY), a NOBOBY turns into a somebody when he is tested beyond his limit and his inner violence and anger released. As the film’s tag goes: Never underestimate a nobody.
The film begins with Hutch (Bob Odenkirk, NEBRASKA, THE POST) questioned by two police officers. “Who are you? They ask him just before the film’s title NOBODY is splashed out on the screen.
Hutch is shown as the everyday man. Or an everyday frustrated man. Hutch has not had sex with his wife (Connie Nielson) for a while. His work is mundane. Things are worse when he keeps missing the garbage truck on Tuesdays. Then something breaks!!
The film then shifts to its ‘real’ opening when two thieves break into Hutch’s suburban home one night. Hutch declines to defend himself or his family, hoping to prevent serious violence. His teenage son, Blake (Gage Munroe), is disappointed in him and his wife, Becca seems to pull only further away.
When it rains, it pours! The aftermath of the incident strikes a match to Hutch’s long-simmering rage, triggering dormant instincts and propelling him on a brutal path that will surface dark secrets and lethal skills. In a barrage of fists, gunfire and squealing tires, Hutch must save his family from a dangerous adversary (famed Russian actor Alexey Serebryakov) - and ensure that he will never be underestimated as a nobody again.
Nobody fucks with family as shown in GLORIA (though it is not directly her family), STRAW DOGS and now in NOBODY. As the old adage goes, a man will do anything or kill anyone who poses a danger to his family. NOBODY contains a decent plot that pushes all the right buttons with lots of ultra-violence on display.
The script by Derek Kolstad, the narrative architect of the John Wick franchise, covers incidents that include isolated characters like the two hispanic robbers with their ill baby and then by chance Hitch’s encounter with the Russian villain. Life can be looked upon at times as a joke on humanity but it seems here that the joke is extremely cruel to Hutch.
The film is not without humour as evident in two of the best jokes seen in an action flick. The least said the better but the two jokes involve a ‘stop request’ and an ‘Othello’.
Whether one wants to classify NOBODY as a mindless guilty pleasure or not, it does take a lot of insight, thought and clever execution to deliver a solid action packed film like NOBODY.
SHIVA BABY (USA/Canada 2020) **
Directed by Emma Seligman
Writer/director Seligman’s comedy of discomfort takes place during a shiva. A shiva is the time of mourning practiced by Jews following the funeral of a loved one, where comfort is brought to the grieving. Those below the age of 30 need not be involved in a shiva so it is rather strange that the protagonist focuses on twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott) who attends the shiva. Danielle is a perennial student who’s been lying to her supportive but overbearing parents about her faltering academic career. Then again, she has a lot of secrets she’s keeping, including her relationship with an older man, Max (Danny Deferrari), who also gives her money. At the shiva, everything goes wrong for her, including losing her cell phone, the appearance of Max and his family at the shiva and the appearance also of her lesbian fling at the prom.
The film is not that funny and discomfort comedies cause audiences to feel uneasy. One wonders what the purpose of the movie is. The result is a discomforting film that generates few laughs or satisfaction despite the fact that the actors try quite hard to make it all work.
SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (UK 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Andy Goddard
The main plot is loosely inspired in the real-life Augusta Victoria College, located in the also real-life coastal town Bexhill-on-Sea (county of Sussex, south-east to England). As in the movie, Augusta Victoria College was a female high school for influential and high ranking Nazi families. Its name refers Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (German: Auguste Viktoria Friederike Luise Feodora Jenny von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg), who was the last empress of Germany. The college opened in 1932 and it was closed in 1939, after the invasion of Poland by Germany that started World War II.
The college is the setting of a spy thriller with a simple plot but lots of running around, primarily by teacher Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard). The film begins in 1939. An English teacher disappears from an Anglo-German private finishing school for girls on the south coast of England. Days later, Miller arrives to interview for the faculty position now left vacant. Miller is hired by the headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench) on a trial period and told that among his twenty students are the daughters of the Nazi High Command. Miller begins his lessons, and all is well until one day, Miller's predecessor is found washed up on the beach near the school, leading to suspicions of foul play. Miller works as a spy for Colonel Smith (David Schofield), his British Secret Service handler, who is killed by Else after Miller secretly overhears a conversation between her and one of the guests. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse chase. All the high jinx is taken quite seriously in the script that is co-written by Izzard, Celyn Jones and director Andy Goddard. Goddard directs the spy piece in a strict no-nonsense manner with little humour. Only once or twice does Goddard allow some theatrics into the film as the headmistress Rocholl says at one point: “These are my girls, I will not just stand around.” Izzard plays Miller too with great seriousness. Oscar Winner Jim Broadbent has a supporting role as the local bus driver, sympathetic to Miller helping out, and almost getting hot water from the kettle poured over him in an extremely edge-of-your-seat suspense scene. James D’arcy plays a real nasty traitor.
The movie title addresses about the infamous Doomsday Clock, which symbolically marks what close is human race to the extinction by a nuclear holocaust. The clock was created by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 two years after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War (which it lasted to 1991). It is kept actually as a warning about a potential disaster for the human race. In the film however, which is set before WWII, it is the phrase indicating the time when the German girls are to be picked up on England and transported back to Germany together with a list of spy names.
For those, like me who like their spy thrillers nasty and tense, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT will delight despite its flaws and bits of incredibility and cheap theatrics.
THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS (Italy/USA/Greece 2020) ***
Directed by Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw
This documentary on the rare object of truffles is set in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, where a handful of men, 70 or 80 years of age hunt for one of the world’s most expensive ingredients – the rare white Alba truffle, coveted by Michelin-starred chefs. But it is also their dogs, the faithful companions who are the hunters. Men and dogs are shown in many segments -one with a hunter having a birthday with his dog; another with one shopping for a muzzle for his dog as dogs cannot partake of poison when wearing one; and yet another with the two of them in a bathtub. With a camcorder placed on the dog, the film has vivid scenes of the dogs rushing through the forests or digging up truffles. The film also shows how truffles are eaten by connoisseurs. And also how they are bought by different kinds of buyers - the rich conglomerate ones and the traditional ones. The film also depicts a different kind of lifestyle, where these hunters know nothing else yet are experts in their field, often not wanting to pass down information to new generations. This is an eye-opening though narrowly focused doc that one wishes the film would also show truffle hunters in France and other countries.