Made in Italy

New to Amazon Prime Video.

Written and directed by James D’Arcy, Made in Italy is a predictable, but warm and humourous romantic comedy. Michael Richardson is Jack, a London gallery owner who suddenly finds he’s going to be out of work when the owners and family of his estranged wife decide they want to sell. His only hope is to buy it himself and to do that he needs to raise money by agreeing with his father and artist Robert (Richardson’s real life father Liam Neeson), to sell a family home in Tuscany. However, the home has been left abandoned for 20 years, since the death of Jack’s mother, Robert’s wife. They travel to Tuscany to freshen the place up, but it needs much more than an a lick of paint.

The story of this film sadly reflects the real life story of Richardson and Neeson who had had their own family tragedy and that reality does sit in the background, especially as you watch the more emotional scenes where they try to come to terms with the guilt and regret of their loss.

That said, this is very predictable, nuts and bolts bit of storytelling, it follows a very well trodden path, estrangement, new love, relationship growth and change. However, it’s a nicely told story, with warmth, some charm and a nice light humorous touch. While it does deliver laughs, it struggles in its more emotional moments that feel a little “clunky”, although there is a well done father and son scene later in the film.

Liam Neeson is surprisingly watchable in this comic role, with a nice comedic touch and dry delivery, that suggests when he finally retires his action film persona, there’s a career in fluffy romcoms. Lindsay Duncan has a nice cameo as estate agent Kate and Valeria Bilello as Natalia also provides good support.

Made in Italy is a very disposable bit of entertainment, enjoyable enough while its on, beautifully shot with lots of gorgeous Tuscan scenery to enjoy and a nice warm humour. It is unlikely to stick with you much once the credits roll, but pleasant enough.

Six Minutes to Midnight.

Showing on Sky Cinema in the UK.

Written by Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, Andy Goddard directs this “based on true events” story of a finishing school in Bexhill-on-Sea on England’s Sussex coast which hosted the daughters of prominent Nazi’s and Nazi sympathizers, teaching them language, deportment and etiquette. The school was opened in 1932 and closed just before the outbreak of war in 1939.

While the school existed, built around it is a fictitious tale of spying, secret evacuations and double crossings. Eddie Izzard plays Thomas Miller a “jobbing” school teacher who joins Miss Rocholl’s (Judi Dench) small staff after the sudden disappearance of his predecessor. He quickly discovers that all may is not as it seems with the students and their German teacher, Ilse Keller (Caral Juri). But then all is not what it seems with Miller, as he finds himself in a race against time as the clock ticks down toward the beginning of the war.

This film is certainly not without flaws, its dialogue is clunky at times, Izzard in not wholly believable in the lead role and the fictitious story around the school is often silly. I think your enjoyment of this film will be in direct correlation to how much your prepared to go with it.

I personally decided the longer the film went on the more I was happy to roll with it. It’s shot in the style of classic 1950’s British spy dramas, in fact I’m surprised it wasn’t shot in black and white. Izzards comic background comes out in a pacey and humorous script, even if it does “clunk” heavily at times. Performances are a bit unbalanced, while Izzard is not always convincing and the girls are almost caricatures of Germanic, young Nazi’s but balanced by Judi Dench. She brings her usual gravitas as the head of the school, capturing the move between stoic defence of the school to concerned mother hen for “her girls”. Juri, Tijan Merai as Gretel, the outsider of the group, and Jim Broadbent as mysterious bus driver Charlie all offer good support.

Six Minutes to Midnight is presented in the UK as a Sky original, which is often a warning, but to its credit it is certainly one of the more enjoyable films from this stable. If you’re prepared to forgive some of its failings and if you like the look and feel of those classic 1950’s spy dramas I think you’ll find enough in its short running time to enjoy.

United States vs. Billie Holiday

On Sky Cinema in the UK and Hulu globally.

Based in part on Johann Hari’s book, The United States vs. Billie Holiday looks at the final period of Holiday’s life and deals with the pursuit of her for narcotics offences by the US government that would dog her until her death. She is believed to have been targeted because of her song “Strange Fruit” about the continued lynching of black Americans in the southern US which was seen as “un-American” by J Edgar Hoover and bureau chief Harry Anslinger, although this was doubtless a cover for a broader racist agenda.

The story of Holiday and the political context of when it’s set are historically significant, however it’s a pity this film doesn’t do a much better job of telling it.

Let’s start with the positives, Andra Day as Holiday is already garnering both deserved praise and awards. Holiday is a complex and clearly troubled character with a difficult childhood and issues with addiction. Her situation is exacerbated by her own poor decisions particularly in her relationship choices, selecting a string of untrustworthy and violent men. She is also hugely talented and sees the importance of making a difference, all of which Day balances smartly, as well as truly shining with her performances of Holiday’s catalogue. She is also well supported by Trevante Rhodes as agent Jimmy Fletcher and the performances from those playing Holidays entourage.

However the problems are plenty, the film is a bit of a mess, narratively all over the place with Director Lee Daniels story telling choices not really paying off. The focus on a fictional relationship between Holiday and Fletcher seems odd, with so much of Holiday’s character or the political and racial situation of the time would have been a much more interesting story. None of those things ever feel that they are getting due consideration. Alongside that the pacing is problematic with the film felling longer than its just over 2 hour running time.

What this film has succeeded in doing is raising my interest in finding out more about Holiday’s story, just a pity it didn’t do a good enough job of telling it itself.

Yes Day

New on Netflix.

Directed by Miguel Arteta, based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s book, Yes Day is a family comedy that introduces us to the concept of the “Yes Day”, where parents agree, with some boundaries, to say yes to every suggestion their kids make. Jennifer Garner and Edgar Ramirez are parents, Allison and Carlos, of three kids, a teenage daughter, younger son and young daughter. Before parenthood Allison was the embodiment of saying yes from spontaneous days at the beach to sky diving, but now she’s the mum who says no. Her hope comes when school teacher and seemingly wise sensei Mr Dixon (Ned Flaxen) suggests a yes day.

In reality it’s a flimsy premise and what we get is a flimsy film, it starts promisingly, nicely setting up the story and the complexities that come with parenthood when having to play “bad cop” parent and that leads into the first couple of yes day stunts. However, the film doesn’t really get beyond been a loosely connected selection of silly family set piece stunts.

The story arc is hugely predictable and you know before the film starts exactly where it is heading and it doesn’t dissapoint, ticking all the boxes as it goes. You know the story is going to try to educate the kids about how just saying yes isn’t that easy and how there has to be some responsibility taken, but it doesn’t pull it off with a narrative that isn’t really strong enough to make it work.

All that said this isn’t terrible, there are things to enjoy, the early part of the film is fun and there are laughs to be had relatively regularly throughout. With a likeable cast in which Garner in particular carries off the Mum trying to be fun alongside kids that are all fun and believable. It never takes itself to seriously and at just under 90 minutes doesn’t try to drag out its rather flimsy idea too far.

If you want a smart well made comedy focussed on the trials of family there are much better ones out there, but if you are after a bit of light hearted fluff with a few laughs you could do a lot worse.

Moxie

Showing on Netflix.

Directed by Amy Poehler, based on Jennifer Matthieu’s novel, adapted by Tamara Chestna, Moxie tells the story of a group of 16 year old female students who are sick of the seemingly rampant sexist attitude that perpetuates throughout their school. Vivien (Hadley Robinson) realises things have to change when a new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual Pena), raises questions about some of the practices that are excepted as normal in the school, and she is inspired to act as she learns about her mother’s (Amy Poehler’s) own rebellious past. Vivien starts a ‘zine that highlights some of the schools archaic attitudes and starts to empower an ever growing group who demand change.

I won’t pretend I’m the target audience for this, or claim to know if this is a fair reflection of a modern high school, but Moxie is a smart, humorous, well meaning film, with a likeable cast. While I don’t know if it fairly reflects high school, what is clear is it has something to say about a, sadly still, pervading sexism in too many areas of society.

Performances are good throughout Robinson does well carrying the bulk of the film, Amy Poehler is subtle and believable as her Mum, Pascual Pena and Lauren Tsia all help in keeping the film believable and creating characters to engage with.

That said, It isn’t wholly successfully, the big tonal shift in the second half doesn’t completely work and feels a bit heavy-handed in the way it handles some important subjects, not giving some of them the time they deserve. While the group of young women so focussed and driven in the first half of the film, feel like they take their eye off the ball in the second.

However, this didn’t detract from the film for me, it was enjoyable and while not as well executed as something like Booksmart, Poehler delivers a smart script and good performances from a young cast, to produce a humorous, likeable film with something interesting to say.

Coming 2 America

On Amazon Prime Video.

It’s been 32 years since Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his confidant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) headed to Queens in New York to help the Prince find “his Queen”.

We now find Akeem, Lisa, their daughters and her wider family all living in the Royal palace in Zamunda. There are concerns for both the health of King Jaffe Jofar (James Earl Jones) and, as Akeem does not have a son, a coming constitutional problem. However, the Prince discovers that indeed there was some Royal Oats sewn in Queens and he has an illegitimate son and heir. Akeem and Semmi head to America once again to find him (Jermaine Fowler’s Lavelle) and bring him back to Zamunda, to maintain Zamundan tradition and arrange a marriage with daughter of neighbouring country Netxdoria’s (yes really!) leader, General Izzi, (Wesley Snipes) and avoid a potential conflict.

I headed into this uneeded sequel, Directed by Craig Brewer and penned by Murphy, with pretty low expectations. How do you take what was a fine 80’s comedy which mixed its story of empowerment and the need for change, with joyous gags built around Murphy’s film career and nods to James Earl Jones’s most famous screen creation and do something fresh and interesting?

It seems you don’t! The story is a mess and seems to forget about what made the original endearing, throwing out strong female characters with Shari Headley’s Lisa and Kiki Layne as Meeka particularly under used, as are much of the returning cast.

It’s not a disaster and there are things to enjoy. The first 20 minutes are fun, as is the time we get to spend with those returning characters, the boys in the barber shop, Cleo and his Zamundan McDowells restaurant and some self referential gags and an ending scene that scored some goodwill points.

But there isn’t enough of that and the Eliza Doolittle esque new story isn’t that interesting or well done.

Performances are patchy and some of the characters are almost unrecognisable, Murphy is strangely listless as the Prince, although he and Hall recreate many of the supporting characters with all their original fun.

Ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity, for those who enjoyed the original there is probably enough here to entertain, for those who have never seen it, to be honest I’d probably give this a miss and watch the original instead.

Escape from Pretoria.

Now on Amazon Prime Video.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Tim Jenkin a member of the African National Congress (ANC) who was arrested in South Africa in 1978 alongside his collaborator Stehen Lee (Daniel Webber) for spreading “propaganda” aimed at ending the countries abhorrent system of Apartheid. They are convicted and placed in Pretoria state prison with other dissidents, the film shares the true story of the escape that they planned and executed 18 months later with a fellow dissident, portrayed as Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) here.

Directed by Francis Annan, who also worked on the screenplay. The cinematic attraction of the story is the escape and that is were the film is at its best as when it does occasionally drift into applying political context it feels a little “clunky”. The lack of that political context doesn’t detract from what this really is, a tense, solidly made, prison break drama.

The cast are strong, even if some of the accents are a little uneven, Daniel Radcliffe turns in a predictably solid performance as Jenkins, I’m a real fan of his work, often choosing quirky and small budget roles and always bringing something interesting to the screen and here he brings intensity and control as Jenkins leads a daring and dangerous plan. Webber and Winter bring good support and Ian Hart as the elder “statesmen” Denis Goldberg brings necessary gravitas to the role.

Escape from Pretoria is a solid prison drama and Annan does a good job of ramping the tension with the smart use of the echoing clunks of door locks, near misses and the classic directorial trick of zooming in tightly on eyes in the highest moments of tension.

Ultimately I did feel that as a prison escape movie it was something that I’d seen before and probably done better. That said it doesn’t stop it been a watchable, intense drama that draws you in and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end.

I Care a Lot

Showing on Amazon Prime.

Written and directed by J Blakeson, I Care a Lot is a very dark comedy thriller. Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson a professional carer who is appointed by the courts as a ward for those, normally elderly, who are judged as no longer able to look after themselves or have anyone suitable in their lives to look after them. This gives her full control of every element of their lives from finance to healthcare and is often awarded in the absence of those who are to have it imposed upon them. That is the heart of Marla’s business, operating an unscrupulous “scam” finding vulnerable individuals and in league with others whose moral compass is a little off finds it easy to takeover their lives. Marla with her partner Fran have a thriving operation until they target Jennifer Peterson a wealthy single lady with no family to support her or ask questions, but all is not as it seems.

This film is filled with despicable characters with nothing to redeem them and garner your support. A plot that requires you suspend your disbelief regularly as it winds it ways through its plot twists and turns, but that said, I really enjoyed it.

I’m a fan of films that shine a light on bizarre legal loopholes that can be exploited and the fact that Blakeson has based the story on a potential reality makes it all the more dark, disturbing and enjoyable.

This is definitely Rosamund Pike’s film, she is fantastic as the utterly despicable Marla, driven, obsessed, unscrupulous, immoral, with an inflated view of self, she is unsympathetic and unlikable and Pike grabs the role completely and revels in it. Peter Dinklage gives brilliant support as Roman, Marla’s nemesis, trying to maintain control while dealing with the problems she’s created. The real gem though is Dianne Wiest’s Jennifer, the victim of Marla’s latest despicable act, swinging between vulnerable old lady and determined woman with a hidden story who knows what Marla has bitten off even if Marla doesn’t and she balances her performance beautifully.

With a zippy script and intricate story line delivered by a strong and invested cast, I Care a Lot is a good example of not needing to like the main characters to enjoy a film, go seek it out.

News of the World

Showing on Netflix.

Directed by Paul Greengrass adapted from a novel by Paulette Jiles. Tom Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd a former Confederate soldier who now makes his living as a travelling news reader visiting towns and cities across the southern US sharing newspapers stories to paying crowds. As he moves between towns he discovers a young lost girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who speaks no English having been brought up by the Kiowa who themselves had taken her from her German parents. Kidd finds papers with her that point to an aunt and uncle who will take her in and decides he will take her there himself. We then follow there long and often dangerous journey to get both Johanna and Kidd home.

News of the World is really a classic buddy road trip movie. We have our odd couple, Kidd and Johanna who both have pasts that haunt them and futures that are uncertain. As they travel, as you’d expect, these two very different characters start to build a bond, two souls that have clearly suffered loss and tragedy, finding solace and hope in each others company.

Greengrass does a fine job of capturing that classic western feel, with wide impressive vista’s matched by gritty oppressive towns and lively meeting halls. There are some interesting modern parallels as they travel between towns and regions which are keen to rediscover their identity in the aftermath of tumultuous times but not overtly so that it takes you out of the feeling of place and time.

News of the World is steady if not spectacular and while the final act feels a little “flabby” as it meanders toward its predictable conclusion, the first two thirds offer a nice balance between relationship and tension.

Tom Hanks is typically and predictably watchable and convincing as the grizzled and damaged veteran. He is more than well supported, in what is fundamentally a two hander, by 12 year old Zengel, who while she has little dialogue she says much in her mannerisms and facial expressions.

News of the World is solid if not spectacular story telling, but in the hands of Greengrass and Hanks that’s enough to keep it it interesting and engaging enough to keep you watching.

Greenland

Available on Amazon Prime Video.

A massive comet is heading towards Earth, at first thought to be no more than a light show with fragments harmlessly crashing towards us, however, it soon becomes clear it is going to be much more. Written by Chris Spurling, directed by Ric Roman Waugh, Greenland is the archetypal disaster movie.

Gerard Butler plays John Garrity a structural engineer who receives a presidential alert saying he and his family, estranged wife Alison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), have been selected for shelter, all they need to do is get to the airforce base and be flown to their secret destination, of course, as with all disaster movies, it’s not that straightforward.

Let’s be clear there is nothing original here, it ticks all the disaster movie boxes, loving but flawed husband, strained marriage and a son to focus on.

While there are moments that make you ask “why would you do that?” overall it does a good job of remaining believable. Butler’s character doesn’t become some kind of super human, determined to protect his family but not by fighting endless bad guys or with unrealistic feats of bravery and cunning, Baccarin the same while avoiding the tip into distressed damsel. Instead Greenland slowly and realistically winds up the tension until its final act crescendo and is the better for it.

This won’t be something that will live long in my memory, but while it lasted it was a decent bit of disaster movie fun and maybe a message for the time, it doesn’t matter how bad it gets there is always hope for the future.

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