UK

Hysteria (2011)

hysteria 2011

It was thought in the late 1800s, and probably long before then, that a woman suffering from hysteria required stimulation in her nether regions in order to “coax the uterus back into position.” This would right the body and mind, temporarily curing a woman of nervousness, stress, loss of appetite, and any number of symptoms owing to the her weak constitution. Of course, hysteria wasn’t a single disease so often as it was a manifestation of a basic human need. And the thing to satisfy that need – the humble vibrator.

The story of the first such electric massager is brought to humorous life in this film, which weaves a tale of invention with social and cultural change in Victorian England. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully bemused Hugh Dancy) is a forward thinking doctor who insists on cleansing wounds in order to minimize the chance of infection by germs. The preposterous idea that microscopic bugs could cause so much disease and death gets him bounced from one hospital to another until he lands a position at Dr. Robert Darymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic. Well respected for his ability to relieve women of their suffering, if one can call it that, he enlists the young Mortimer to assist in his hands-on practice, and possibly to form an alliance with his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).

It’s an amusing film that has great fun with its subject. That Dr. Granville could be so progressive on some areas of medicine yet still subscribe to the belief that women are “unable to experience pleasure without male penetration” garners knowing chuckles. The men are oblivious to the true nature of their work as they briskly oil their hands and finger their way past layers of skirt. Meanwhile, their patients are propped up on an elevated lounge chair, their lower halves covered with a gold and burgundy canopy that lends a certain elegance to the whole affair. Let’s say we’ve come, er, a long way.

And you see how easy it is to give into the temptation to make double entendres and other such coy winks at the audience. There’s sometimes a little too much tongue, and whatever else, in cheek, and the creation of the vibrator and the tremendous social changes that spurred its popularity can seem trite, as if the real significance of the story was brushed aside for some big masturbation joke. One of the first tests of the “feather duster,” as it was initially conceived by Granville’s inventor friend (Rupert Everett), is on an opera singer who’s lost her voice without her weekly sessions. Its success causes her to literally sing in ecstasy, to which I say, to each her own.

The film attempts to add context and seriousness, however, with Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dr. Darymple’s fiery activist daughter and Granville’s intellectual match. She blazes across the screen, full of righteous indignation, demanding her dowry in order to support a poor house for the indigents who are also her friends. The woman is formidable, and so is Gyllenhaal; there’s never a doubt that Charlotte can determine her course in both work and pleasure, seeking gratification in her high ideals and, should chance allow, a partner who shares those commitments. So while Granville is a hero of sorts, the climactic scene shows Charlotte to be the true model of a liberated woman.

Released: 2011
Prod: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis
Dir: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Evertt, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Tobias Menzies
Time: 95 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Cuban Fury

cuban fury

There’s a bit of Cuban but not so much fury in this romantic dance flick. Despite a winning cast and pulsating soundtrack, the movie hews too closely to convention and offers nothing that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. It shakes and spins largely on the charms of star Nick Frost, who turns out to be an ace romantic lead.

Frost plays Bruce Garrett, an erstwhile salsa dance champion who ended his career after school bullies shoved sequins down his throat. That would do it for just about anyone. Bruce is content to leave that episode of his life entirely in the past but changes his mind when his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones), confesses her love for dancing. It doesn’t take long for the bejeweled satin shirts and brushed leather, one-and-a-half inch heel shoes to come flying out.

But it’s not just his past or a bout of serious nerves that he’s dealing with. Bruce must also contend with Drew (a deliciously hammy Chris O’Dowd), a slimy, cocky coworker who gives himself far more credit than he deserves, in every aspect of life. Drew takes every chance to belittle Bruce and steal the limelight, whether at a sales presentation or at bowling night. He isn’t below outright lying and theft either and steps up his tricks in order to win over Julia.

Almost everyone shines in his or her role. Frost wears his romantic leading man role well. Bruce is sweet and sympathetic without being too much of a pushover, and every insult he takes only spurs him on. O’Dowd, meanwhile, does a great job of losing any and all of his heartthrob bonafides as the smarmy foil to Bruce. Jones is less of a standout, appealing to be sure but fading as little more than the object of desire. The rest of the cast compensate though with over-the-top flair, not in an oppressive way but with energy and a sly wink that makes you want to cozy up next to them. Olivia Colman is Bruce’s supportive sister, Rory Kinnear is his suspicious golfing buddy, and Kayvan Novak is his talentless but cheerful classmate.

For all their efforts though, the cast can’t outperform the dry script. There are bursts of wit, but the return isn’t worth it. Even the dance sequences fail to sustain the excitement. The general tenor of the jokes leans towards sexual insecurity and traditional gender norms, particularly in regards to dance, and that’s just not very funny these days. Also, the story doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of the genre. Of course that may not have been the point, but that’s why Cuban Fury is a romantic comedy just like any other.

Released: 2014
Prod: James Biddle, Nira Park
Dir: James Griffiths
Writer: Jon Brown
Cast: Nick Frost, Chris O’Dowd, Rashida Jones, Olivia Colman, Ian McShane, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Alexandra Roach, Rory Kinnear, Kayvan Novak
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Grimsby (2016)

grimsby

If you’re like me and have an aversion to embarrassing discomfort, then you probably also like your Sacha Baron Cohen in small doses. He’s sharp when playing supporting roles (see Sweeney Todd or Talladega Nights) – his manic energy gives a film just the right amount of kick and kink, but let him loose and it’s almost too much of a good thing. Grimsby is one case of Baron Cohen gone amok, and rather than highly concentrated funny, he tries out every profane gag he can think of. Shock and awe is the strategy, which works with a satire like Borat, but this film veers into Brüno territory. A lazy and base faux comedy spy thriller, it mildly seeks to say something about the jobbing working class, as if true heroism was sticking a virus-infected firework up your bum and keeping the Fast and Furious franchise afloat.

Nobby, a Liam Gallagher lookalike from Grimsby, is played with unrestrained glee by Baron Cohen, who also co-wrote and produced, ensuring that he gets to indulge in every crass stereotype for the sake of comedy. A neighborhood favorite who can be counted on for a good time at the pub and who is also loving family man to his devoted wife (Rebel Wilson) and football team of children, Nobby has it all. Except for his little brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong being very Mark Strong-like), from whom he was separated twenty-eight years ago by adoption. When word gets back of Sebastian’s whereabouts, Nobby rushes off to see him.

A few decades and an upper-class childhood in London can do a lot for a hometown kid, and Sebastian is now a world apart from the big brother he once idolized. An elite member of MI6 whose main responsibilities include shooting and punching people, his current mission is to prevent the assassination of a philanthropist (Penélope Cruz) and world health leader. Nobby’s over-exuberance at the reunion causes Sebastian to kill the wrong person, and to infect Daniel Radcliffe with HIV. He’s forced to go rogue, all whilst trying to prove his innocence, uncover a conspiracy, and shake off his brother.

Grimsby rushes along at a brisk 83 minutes, popping off crude jokes like a desperate high school show off. There’s a teabagging scene, a timely jab at Cosby, and a bit about poop. But most people will remember this movie for the elephant sex. It’s not a one and done gag either but an extended sequence that probably comes with a director’s cut. If the film was not so eager to gross out and push boundaries, it might have been a decent action comedy. Isla Fisher, who plays Sebastian’s capable contact at headquarters, could use a meatier role, but the misfits appeal of the two brothers does make for good entertainment. Strong is delightfully game when parodying his hard man persona and keeps an iron face throughout. Shame it’s wasted on raunch.

Alt Title: The Brothers Grimsby
Released: 2016
Prod: Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Ant Hines, Nira Park, Todd Schulman
Dir: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Penélope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis, Ian McShane, Scott Adkins, Yusuf Hofri, Barkhad Abdi
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Twelve in a Box

twelve in a box

I suspect most viewers will be watching this movie because Miranda Hart features prominently in promotional materials. Unfortunately, that makes up the bulk of her appearance. She is on screen for no more than five minutes as a harried fiancée and spends most of that time bundled away in a locked room, out of sight from the titular twelve characters, themselves prisoners on an isolated estate.

The film is a classic locked box character study. Twelve people, all graduates of the same school, are summoned to a mansion for what they think is a reunion. They quickly learn that their host is a dying millionaire who wants to bequeath his fortune to his fellow alumni. The catch – no one may leave the premises for 96 hours, including anyone who may wander onto the grounds, lest everyone lose their share and the money is donated to furry animals.

Priorities are tested as people try to convince themselves and each other to stay. The allure of a quick and cool £1 million is enough for most of them to forgo all plans for the next four days. Barry has to tell his fiancée (Hart) that he’ll be a no-show at their wedding. Julie and Adam figure that shirking their parental responsibilities will be fine as long as the grandparents are around. And Brian, who isn’t even a graduate but just the husband of one, risks ruining an important business deal months in the making. There’s some questionable mental and spiritual gymnastics going on as well. Alice, a devout Christian, has no trouble coming up with reasons why God would want her to take the money.

Some of the characters get lost in the mix, but there are enough wacky personalities to keep the story tumbling from one scenario to the next. Agreeing to stay put for 96 hours is one thing; putting up with each other for that amount of time is another. Within the first few hours, one of the party drops dead and is unceremoniously stuffed into a freezer. Then, as cabin fever sets in, a number of guests engage in affairs, leading to some deadly consequences.

There’s a good amount of black humor, which is appropriate for a movie about how far people will go for money. Comedian Katy Wix leads a cast that proves you don’t need big stars or even cameos to pull off good stories. The production quality does make it feel like you’re sitting in on a film student’s thesis project, but if you allow yourself to get over that prejudice, you’ll find a clever and carefully stitched script. The dialogue meanders at times, but the story is packed with enough material to push things along to tense and funny ending.

Released: 2007
Prod: Bruce Windwood
Dir: John McKenzie
Writer: John McKenzie
Cast: Kenneth Collard, Katy Wix, Belle Mary Hithersay, Brian Mitchell, Glynne Steele, Jane Mcdowell, Miranda Hart, Ed Bennett
Time: 93 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

The Million Pound Note (1954)

million pound note

If you needed a reason to be charmed by Gregory Peck, The Million Pound Note does the trick. But then again, so does any number of the actor’s films. Notorious nice guy and paragon of the incorruptible everyman, Peck just can’t help himself when it comes to winning over his audience. Even when he isn’t the dashing bachelor reporter or the righteous Southern lawyer, he possesses an effortless allure that’s impossible to turn away from. As Henry Adams, a penniless American stranded in turn of the century England, Peck transforms from a scrubby seaman (inasmuch as the actor can be made scrubby) into a dapper millionaire, all on account of a playful bet by two wealthy brothers.

Adapted from a story by Mark Twain, the movie explores the artifice of wealth, elbowing society not so much for the way it worships real money, and power, but the mere suggestion of it. Oliver Montpelier (Ronald Squire) believes that a million pound note will convince anyone of the holder’s worth while his brother Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White) maintains the actual exchange of cash counts for something. Henry gets caught in this game that only the obscenely rich can initiate and immediately reaps the dividends. He sates his empty stomach on a hearty lunch and several tankards of ale and then tries to exchange his rags for more respectable attire.

The film adopts a very Twain-like tone in the way it laughs at the pretense of enormous wealth. At first, condescension oozes out of shopkeepers suspicious of Henry’s entitled manner. The smugness immediately dissipates when he presents his note, and upturned noses are pointed down. Word gets around that there’s an eccentric American millionaire about town, and the fear of offending someone in this moneyed class leads people to give into their assumptions. He’s allowed to acquire everything on credit, from a simple top hat to a stay in luxury hotel suite.

Casting an actor with Peck’s reputation emphasizes the absurdity, contrasting his sensible character with the frivolous and disingenuous nature money seems to inspire. He mines a lot of comedy out of these misunderstandings as Henry, in various states of bemusement, can’t quite believe his luck. Being the honest Gregory Peck-like man that he is though, Henry tries to juggle the fawning elites with a proper sense of self-restraint. He befriends a fellow pauper (Reginald Beckwith) and the two bond over the fact that they are trespassers to this paper world. Still, he can’t help but enjoy the pleasures that come to a man with one million pounds to spare even if he is also conflicted about the deception. The film begins to lag at the halfway point when the plot turns into variations on the same theme, and the writers belatedly introduce a love interest to energize the movie. Henry’s attachment to aristocrat Portia (Jane Griffiths) furthers his misgivings since he knows there’s an end date to this charade.

Alt Title: Man with a Million
Released: 1954
Prod: John Bryan, Ronald Neame
Dir: Ronald Neame
Writer: Jill Craigie
Cast: Gregory Peck, Ronald Squire, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jane Griffiths, Joyce Grenfell, A. E. Matthews, Maurice Denham, Reginald Beckwith
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016