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Films I Neglected To Review: Kinks And Clinks
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Amulet," "Fisherman's Friends," "The Great Unified Theory of Howard Bloom," "Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful," "Most Wanted" and "Radioactive."

If you are at all familiar with the filmography of British actress Romola Garai, it is quite likely that you would not peg her as someone who would make their directorial debut with a grim and creepy horror film that touches on such issues as PTSD and the immigration crisis for for most of its running time before exploding in a wild and gruesome finale that contains echoes of the works of Dario Argento and David Cronenberg. And yet, that is exactly what she has done with her striking first feature, "Amulet." The story focuses on Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a former solider from an unnamed foreign country now working as an off-the-books laborer in London while grappling with traumas so significant that he has to literally restrain himself before going to sleep. When the shelter he is staying at is burned down, friendly nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) presents him with an offer--he can move in with Magda (Carla Juri) and her invalid mother (Anah Ruddin) and make repairs in their run-down house in exchange for a place to stay. While still haunted by the horrors of his past--specifically involving a woman named Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) who arrived at his post one day and whom he took in--he finds himself dealing with fresh terrors as well, ranging from a house that is literally rotting from within, something really appalling in the toilet and the question of Magda's mother, who is locked away in the attic and for very good reason.

In addition to directing "Amulet," Garai also wrote the screenplay and what it may lack in originality at times, it more than makes up for in ambition and style. We know, for example, that the story involving the woman at Tomaz's post (which is presented in a series of gradually expanding flashbacks) is not going to end well and we also know that there is more to Magda, her mother and even Sister Claire than meets the eye. However, Garai lets both plot threads unfold in ways that keep you hooked nevertheless so that when she wildly shifts gears in the final scenes from the cerebral to the decidedly visceral, it becomes more than just a load of gore flinging. Garai also does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere of quiet menace that permeates every scene and gets strong performances from Juri and Secareanu. Granted, those in the mood for quick and easy shocks may get a little impatient with the deliberate pacing of the first two-thirds or so but "Amulet" is a film that is made with a lot of skill and believe me, the climax is definitely worth the wait.

"Fisherman's Friends" is the kind of aggressively adorable lark that practically leaps off the screen into the laps of viewers in its desire to be loved by them. Based on a true story--quite loosely from what I understand--the film opens as British record company weasel Danny (Daniel Mays) arrives in the lovely rural village of Port Issac for a stag weekend with his fellow big-city hipster types, whose slick attitudes do not go over well with the salt-of-the-earth locals, especially spunky single mom Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton). One night, Danny and his friends hear a group of local fishermen singing sea shanties and his boss (Noel Clarke) suggests that he should sign them to a record deal. It turns out that his boss was just kidding but by the time that Danny figures this out, he not only becomes convinced that they have what it takes to become stars but also finds himself growing more involved with the lives of the locals, especially Alwyn, whose father (James Purefoy) and grandfather (David Hayman) are both members of the group.

Even if you don't know any of the real-life history behind this story (while the group was real, it seems that all the stuff with the fish-out-of-water record company weasel has been invented), there is not a single scene on display here in which you could not predict almost exactly what will transpire, even right down to the exact phrasing of the dialogue in some cases. Granted, there are some viewers who might find such overt familiarity to be relaxing but I just found its blatant attempt to replicate the "Full Monty" formula for winsome quirkiness to be more enervating than entertaining pretty early on in the overlong proceedings. Yes, the locale is pretty and the songs (which combine recordings of the actual group with the voices of the actors) are charming enough but neither of these qualities makes up for the rest of the utterly meh proceedings. "Fisherman's Friends" is obviously meant to be nothing more than cinematic comfort food but my guess is that after having this served to them, most people will wish that it had either stayed in the oven for considerably longer or that they had ordered something else in the first place.

By most standards, Howard Bloom has led a singular life. Originally interested in the sciences, he drifted into the music scene in the Seventies and eventually became an enormously successful publicist with a client list including Michael Jackson, Prince, Simply Red, Run DMC, Joan Jett and many others until a lengthy bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome forced him to leave the business and left him bedridden for almost a decade. When he reemerged, he returned to science and began publishing a number of best-selling books, many of them dealing with the cosmos and our place in it. And yet, a fascinating life does not necessarily yield a fascinating movie and the documentary "The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom”"certainly proves that. Charlie Hoxie's film takes us on a brief guided tour of Bloom's past (featuring extremely fleeting appearances by the likes of Jett and Jeff Bridges) while following Bloom as he goes about his daily routine. The problem is that Hoxie is so reverential towards Bloom that it feels more like hagiography than anything else and even at a barely feature-length 67 minutes, it grows monotonous after a while--there is never any time when he tries to confront Bloom with some of his more potentially controversial opinions. More importantly, he fails to figure out a way to make Bloom's heady theories come across to viewers as vital or necessary to those who may not have heard them before, choosing instead to concentrate on his offbeat personality. Neither grand nor especially unified, this is a film that feels like a sketch for a fuller and more complete documentary that might one day paint a more complete and satisfying picture of the man.

Photographer Helmut Newton died in 2004 but his distinctive and highly provocative style is not only as instantly recognizable today as it was during his heyday in the 70s and 80s, it still feels as dangerous and transgressive--perhaps even more so--as it did back then. His life and work is the subject of the new documentary "Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful" and while Gero von Bohemia's film may seem a little too formally staid considering the subject at hand--it is the usual collection of archival materials, including behind-the-scenes footage of Newton photographing the likes of Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, and new interviews with friends and colleagues--what is on display is still pretty intriguing. The most interesting portions of the film are the ones that serve as a meditation on his entire oeuvre and whether his often-kinky visions of dominatirix-like models in chilly surroundings were mere misogynistic fantasies or celebrations of female power in all of its allure. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film leans towards the latter and actually might have benefitted from a couple of additional voices who disliked his work. (Here, the anti-Newton brigade consists almost entirely of an old Fence talk show appearance in which Newton squared off against Susan Sontag, who confesses to hating his work but liking him.) However, the interviews with former subjects Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling and Nadja Auermann do yield some fascinating tidbits about his artistic process while offering some interesting thoughts on the ultimate meaning and impact of his work, both back when the work was originally done as well as today. For fans of Newton, "The Bad and the Beautiful" is a must, of course, but as an examination of one of the photography world's most consistent outrageous and thought-provoking practitioners, it is worth a look.


"Most Wanted" tells a sprawling story of crime, drugs, investigative journalism and corruption and while it has been made with an obvious amount of care and intelligence, it lacks the kind of narrative urgency that a film like this needs to succeed. In the first of two plot threads, set in the late 1980s, sad sack Quebec junkie Daniel Leger (Antoine Olivier Pilon) falls in with a shady drug dealer (Jim Gaffigan), who persuades him to go to Thailand as part of a big deal. What Daniel does not realize is that the dealer is an informant working with Canadian authorities and that the deal is part of a sting operation in which he is the unwitting patsy. Alas, it goes sideways and Daniel is arrested by Thai authorities and sentenced to 100 years in prison while the others cover up their participation and move on. A few years later, investigative journalist Victor Marlarek (Josh Hartnett) gets wind of Leger's story and begins digging into it, uncovering the astonishing levels of corruption and greed that led to a man rotting in prison for something that he was basically railroaded into doing. The story is interesting enough but the execution by Daniel Roby, while competent enough, just never quite comes together. The dual time line structure that the film employs to go back and forth between Leger's misadventures and Marlarek’s investigation takes a long time to fall into proper synch and the switch offs between the two are more jarring than edifying at times. Additionally, although the film is certainly long enough, it lacks the kind of single-minded focus and obsession with detail that made such journalistic procedurals as "All the President's Men" and "Spotlight" so spellbinding--I could have used more of that and less of the scenes involving Marlarek and his home life. The performances by Hartnett and Pilon are good and Stephen McHattie is also good as a cop who is perfectly willing to steamroll Daniel in order to satisfy his own ambitions. "Most Wanted" is not bad, per se, but whatever it is that makes a film along these line truly click and come alive, this one simply does not have it.

If you went out of your way to try to deliberately create an example of an absolutely mediocre Oscar bait biopic, the kind that has become all too common now that simply playing a famous person is enough to land one's name in the annual award derby, you probably could not come up with a better or blander example than "Radioactive," which attempts to telescope the life and work of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie into less than two hours of screen time with the usual array of sketchy characterizations, dialogue that is way too on-the-nose for its own good, a narrative that lurches from event to event without any real flow and plenty of speeches that seem ready-made for award show clips. What is surprising about all this is that the film was directed by Marjane Satrapi, whose previous films "Persepolis" and "Chicken with Plums" demonstrated a unique voice that is all but absent here. Like those earlier efforts, this film is based on a graphic novel but unlike them, Satrapi did not write the original book (it is based on Lauren Redniss's 2010 work "Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout") nor did she pen the screenplay, which was done by Jack Thorne. There is nothing inherently wrong with a filmmaker known for telling personal stories taking a step back to do something not specifically related to them but Satrapi presents everything in such a flat and disinterested manner that it is difficult to ascertain exactly what it was about Curie's story that made her want to tell it in the first place. As Curie, Rosamund Pike is perfectly fine but nothing more--she never fully immerses herself into the role in the way that she did when she played slain war correspondent Marie Colvin in "A Private War" (2018). The film has been handsomely mounted and looks good but you keep waiting for it to demonstrate some genuine spark of life but, outside of a brief appearance towards the end by Anya Taylor-Joy as Curie’s now-adult daughter Irene, a Nobel-winning scientist in he own right,, it never arrives. There is no doubt that Marie Curie and her contributions to science, the reverberations of which are still being felt today, could one day form the basis of a powerful and worthwhile biopic. Sadly, "Radioactive" is not that film.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4255
originally posted: 07/24/20 00:30:48
last updated: 07/24/20 02:52:17
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