I have got a whole new slate of reviews this week. TIFF may have ended, but there’s still plenty of award season films to come, along with whatever random genre flicks studios plan to throw out there. Bring it on, I say! This week, I wrote about a teenage detective, oddball schemers, the women’s lib origins, a stripped-down thriller, a tale of two ravers, a colorful kids film, and a story of drunkards. The following features reviews for Enola Holmes, Kajillionaire, Misbehaviour, Alone, Beats, H Is For Happiness, and one more review from 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival, Another Round.
The Setup: Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), the teenaged sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), sets out on a quest to find her missing mother (Helena Bonham Carter). Her efforts mean using her considerable skills to outwit her famous brothers and unravel a dangerous conspiracy.
Review: With two innovative television series and an enjoyable film franchise, it’s clear the Sherlock Holmes property still resonates with people. That makes it rather refreshing to see a different yet familiar approach to this new Netflix-acquired take on the material in the form of a young adult story fit for all to watch. Of course, it would be even more refreshing to have seen this film arrive in theaters, as it does what’s needed to work as a decently budgeted adventure film coming from Legendary Pictures, as well as something skewed to a particular audience. As it stands, the film will ideally find a good amount of play on Netflix, as it’s a lot of fun.
Taking the break-the-fourth-wall approach to the construction of the film, the effort to bring the character created by Nancy Springer in a series of books is handled quite well thanks to committed work from Brown. Armed with her natural English accent for a change, the film allows her to have the sort of attitude that lets her be inquisitive as well as in on the action. The sleuthing one would expect from a Holmes-related film is appropriately balanced with a good dose of action sequences, which benefit from establishing a series of characters who matter.
Brown is quite good in the role, playing into the qualities that keep her as eccentric as her brothers, but there’s also plenty of fun coming from the rest of the cast. Cavill, Claflin, and Carter are all bringing the varying amounts of respectability required as their key roles. Louis Partridge has a fair amount of chemistry with Brown, serving as a romantic interest and the one who needs saving most of the time. There’s also the fun casting of Adeel Akhtar as Inspector Lestrade and an appropriate level of menace brought by Burn Gorman as the film’s heavy.
While a little long, the film’s central mystery and the elements revealed around it play out well enough. I wouldn’t expect a high stakes plot from a movie that wants to maintain a level of lightness. That said, I wasn’t expecting the fairly brutal action on display for a film concerning Enola Holmes. This isn’t to say she shouldn’t be fighting like this, but many elaborate set pieces do a great job of showing just how much the film was intended to be seen on a big screen instead of a streaming debut.
The other elements come together well enough. Director Harry Bradbeer, who’s worked with Pheobe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag and Killing Eve does well in transferring over similar visual qualities to a cinematic level. As a result, you have a film that’s fun, funny, and clever enough in putting together a solid mystery for a younger Holmes.
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix September 22, 2020
The Setup: Two not-so-successful con artists (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) have trained their daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to scam and steal at every turn, with no major affection in return. The recruitment of a charmed stranger (Gina Rodriguez) then upsets the balance of their schemes.
Review: Writer/director Miranda July is a unique talent. Her films operate on this level stationed between crushingly pretentious (a word I do not like) and oddly soulful. Yes, there’s a high amount of quirkiness in Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future, and now Kajillionaire, but there’s also a sense of warmth that comes through in each of these. That goes a long way in making offbeat films work, even as they bump up against some conventional narrative ideas.
Kajillionaire may actually by July’s most accessible film yet in terms of a heist/con man-based narrative, but there’s still nothing quite like it in presentation. This is a weird movie, but it very much works because of its weirdness.
Take Wood’s character, for example. Her name is Old Dolio, because her parents tried to have her name be entered in the will of another person with that name before they passed. It didn’t work, but we have this adult-child with incredibly long hair and a particular speaking rhythm, who is now discovering the world. It’s an odd character, but Wood does will in making her work.
Much of the film revolves around what at first seems like an animosity Old Dolio has for Rodriguez’s Melanie. Over time, however, things evolve into something that should actually have been expected but still play a natural and affirming idea of what it means to grow as a person with their own ideas and forms of expression.
Getting back to the weird though, Jenkins and Winger are great here. They perfectly handle the oddity of their existence, which includes having their watches set to the time when pink foam starts dripping into the old office space they live in at a lower price than an actual home. When not cleaning up foam, the time spent on discussing elaborate plans and whatever else emphasizes just how strange these people are, yet easily watchable.
The buy-in may be in accepting an eccentric group of people, as this is not a film that’s all too narrative-driven, and yet it’s still quite inviting. This group may not actually have a chance at becoming kajillionaires, but July’s ability to establish these characters makes the film quite rich.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters September 25, followed by a VOD release October 16, 2020.
The Setup: During 1970, while Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) hosted the Miss World Competition, featuring the first black woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to be crowned, the newly formed women’s liberation movement (featuring Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley) achieved overnight fame by disrupting the live broadcast.
Review: It seems like this could be a perfectly fine comedy-drama based on actual events, were it not for the lackluster screenplay and handling of the characters. For all the well-meaning intentions, chances to provide some perspective and generally solid performances all-around, I couldn’t help but feel like a documentary would do a much better job than what this film has to offer.
The problem is seeing the film trying to find a point of view, but coming away with little beyond a message of empowerment. That can be all well and good, but confusing for a film that wants to champion multiple angles of the story it is telling.
On the one hand, you have the women’s lib side, where Knightley’s Sally Alexander is committed to the idea of seeing women being allowed to take advantage of possibilities rather than be forced into roles established by the patriarchy. That said, the way she treats her mom (Phyllis Logan) means the film wants to make a point, yet show sympathy from her side as well.
Meanwhile, Mbatha-Raw is doing great work as Jennifer Hosten, a figure who could have their own story, but is sidelined by all the effort being put into explaining how the Miss World competition works, what’s going on with the other contestants, and moving back and forth between why the inclusion matters, as well as why the whole event is being protested.
And then there’s Kinnear mugging it up as Bob Hope as a way of adding on some other perspective involving a generally beloved comedian being shamed for his attitude towards the movement. Perhaps there’s a conversation to be had involving Hope, but this isn’t a film very concerned with probing too deep in that regard.
I’ve seen various feel-good movies of this kind before, and while the attempt to make an entertaining film out of an event like this can work, very little of what director Philippa Lowthorpe has to offer registers as more than surface-level entertainment, made better thanks to a solid cast. That in mind, the film may aim to misbehave, but this competition wasn’t all that exciting.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters and VOD September 25, 2020
The Setup: A recently widowed traveler (Jules Willcox) is relentlessly pursued by a stranger (Marc Menchaca), leading to a cat-and-mouse game in the wilderness, where she must fight to survive.
Review: The key to director John Hyams’ thriller is how stripped down it is. Aside from some implications through brief opening moments and bits of dialogue, there is an economical approach to Alone. It makes the film al the better, as we’ve seen thrillers of this nature before, but the work done here to put together something along the lines of Duel meets Misery.
Now, this film doesn’t quite approach the level of those classics, let alone the best examples of the genre, but it is efficient, fast-paced, and tense. That’s all you really need. We don’t get much in the way of motivations from the “Man” in question. There’s also not a lot to Willcox’s Jessica, aside from some very basic details. That said, as opposed to The Rental, this film is pretty much all thriller-based tension and payoff.
Yes, there’s a build-up in terms of seeing where some of the initial meetings between Jessica and the “Man” go, but we’re soon thrust into a more dire situation that keeps raising the stakes and pushing toward new surprises. The arrival of a third character (Anthony Heald), for instance, is both welcome and entirely frustrating. As the audience knows as much as Jessica knows, the sense of exacerbation only increases when deciphering the best course of action. Having a mix of elements and people to interact with only make things more challenging.
At just over 90 minutes, there’s plenty to get caught up in with Alone, before it sets you back free into the world. Thanks to a level of technical proficiency and enough intensity from both key performers, it’s worth the ride.
Where To Watch: Now available in Select Theaters and on VOD
The Setup: Set in 1994 Scotland against the backdrop of a criminal justice act banning outdoor rave parties, best friends Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) spend a night looking to party at a rave before they go their separate ways.
Review: Arriving somewhat out of nowhere, Beats has a lot in common with Give Me Liberty, another recent film distributed by the same studio. Like that film, Beats takes place during a long day, with a backdrop dealing with injustice just sitting on the verge of causing major issues, while our main characters do what they can to get through their day, which is full of wild events. The key aspect of Beats is its reliance on friendship.
It’s just one movie, but Johnno and Spanner are clearly very close. We see that. The care they have for one another matches their love of techno and house music. This makes their quest to have a good time and find a rave during their final hours together before splitting off, both gratifying and tragic.
Not hurting is the wonderful sense of style found in the film. Relying on black and white cinematography, with some other flourishes, the film understands how to present a particular time frame and environment reflecting the emotion of the characters. When things head in a different direction, it becomes more impressive based on realizing how setup the film has been in delivering certain thematic ideas.
Stephen Soderbergh came on as an executive producer after seeing director Brian Welsh’s episode of Black Mirror, and you can see why he’d respond to this script. It takes a straightforward idea and finds ways to experiment. There’s an authenticity to the work and the character interactions, but the film doesn’t just settle at being a well-written indie. Thanks to some innovation, Beats does plenty to make the rave-scene quite strikingly memorable.
Where To Watch: Now available for digital purchase and rental.
The Setup: A near-relentlessly happy and optimistic 12-year-old girl (Daisy Axon) is inspired by the strange new boy (Douglas Benson) at school to help mend her broken family by any means necessary.
Review: I wouldn’t be surprised if director John Sheedy was a big fan of Babe. As far as family films with a lot of Australian spirit go, there’s a lot of familiarity in H is for Happiness that seems to key into the number of feel-good vibes that can come, let alone the use of bright colors. That’s fortunate, as the film may not bring a lot that’s new to the table, it’s not aspiring to reinvent the wheel either.
Instead, this movie has young Booth as Claire to work with. The high-spirited nature of this peppy little school girl means watching a film bounce around with an oddball amount of quirk for the sake of providing a fun time for an audience of all ages. Were the film not so full of cheeriness, one could see this fall in line with Matilda. That said, even that film had a fantastical element to go along with the villainous component of that film.
Whatever comparison works, it’s a matter of taking in a movie that dares to put a smile in the face of bullies and varying levels of adversity. At the same time, having Claire work to do something about her parents (Richard Roxburgh and Emma Booth) and her rich uncle (Joel Jackson) means finding some neat territory to dig into. More fun, however, are the adventures/interludes with “Douglas Benson from Another Dimension.”
Matching someone with Claire means finding even more quirkiness to settle on for a film rife with energy. Based on “My Life as an Alphabet” by Barry Jonsberg, I have no idea how devoted to the page this film is, but there certainly seems to be a spirit that was being strived for, which has worked in favor of this colorful family film.
Where To Watch: Now available on VOD.
The Setup: Set off by Martin’s (Mads Mikkelsen) lack of engagement in his life, four friends, all high school teachers, begin an experiment to determine whether maintaining a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve how they function in their daily lives.
Review: Back in 2012, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg directed The Hunt, starring Mikkelsen, an outstanding feature. Watching Another Round, something I seem to enjoy about this collaboration is the way Vinterberg inserts his “normal” characters into a situation that sends their lives spiraling out of control while maintaining a rhythm compelling and entertaining enough for a feature. This is not a film that plays down the effect alcohol can have on people’s lives, but it serves as another example of tragedy making for great cinema.
Is it all tragedy though? Well, despite me, as an audience member, looking at the plan concocted by Martin and his friends (Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe), and seeing nothing but terrible results headed there way, there’s a component of fun to go with it. The question then becomes – should there be?
Alcoholism is a serious manner, though I’d say plenty of great dramas know their characters do not have to be a continual portrait of self-loathing and bottoming out to show how drastic the situation is. Another Round puts a lot of focus on the escalation of the plan, which starts out reasonable (however ill-advised things are, to begin with), leading to harsh repercussions. The thing is, however, it initially works.
Mikkelsen is terrific here, of course. The actor is compelling is just about everything, but the way he puts on this “average Joe” teacher persona makes you understand where he’s coming from right away, only to see where the change comes into play is impressive. With the alcohol pumping through his system, we watch Martin suddenly engage with his students, and spring to life in other ways.”
The glimpses into the lives of the others are worthwhile too, but this is where Vinterberg walks the line of showing these characters to seemingly be having fun, yet letting us observe the clear dangers this sort of constant intoxication gives rise to. A montage of “good times” may provide some comic relief, but it is countered with far more consequences, ranging from marital separations to events direr.
I was hooked as a viewer. There’s a subtle sense of style on display thanks to some key framing and other aspects to play up themes that extend to how to live one’s life and what’s truly important, among other things. It leads characters down a narrow but effective path, resulting in a cathartic moment that ends the film. I do not need multiple drinks to hang out with these characters, but watching them was quite fulfilling.
Where To Watch: The film had its world premiere at TIFF on September 12, 2020, and has since been acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films for U.S. Distribution.