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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 16.Dec.20

Alex Wheatle  
Review by Rich Cline | 4/5     MUST must see SEE
Alex Wheatle
dir Steve McQueen
scr Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
prd Michael Elliott, Anita Overland
with Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Johann Myers, Jonathan Jules, Elliot Edusah, Khali Best, Fumilayo Brown-Olateju, Dexter Flanders, Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Louis J Rhone, Zakiyyah Deen, Cecilia Noble
release UK6.Dec.20,
US 11.Dec.20
20/UK BBC 1h06

40th Shadows Awards

small axe

Is it streaming?

Cole and Best
A carefully observed film about a noted British author, this drama says more in an hour than most bloated biopics manage in two. Steve McQueen recounts the story with bracing coherence, digging into the journey of a young man as he begins to find his voice. The low-key approach is intimate and emotive, so when it erupts into a street brawl between riot cops and frustrated young men, it feels electric.
After a tough childhood as a young black boy (Muhammad) in overwhelmingly white foster care and a bigoted school system, observant teen Alex (Cole) knows nothing about his ethnic roots. Then he finds a sense of community in Brixton, as neighbour Dennis (Jules) shows him around and he becomes a DJ with his own sound. Politically aware, he's arrested after protesting police brutality in the 1981 Brixton Riots. And his prison cellmate Simeon (Gee) challenges him to read books and dig deeper into his identity. This will lead Alex to become an acclaimed novelist.
McQueen fills the screen with knowing anecdotes. When Dennis invites Alex to a dinner with his boisterous family, Alex has no reference point: he never knew his parents, siblings or other relatives. But he's always been acutely aware that British society wasn't designed for people like him, so it's not surprising that he drifts into the drugs subculture. McQueen cleverly uses news photos to cover the street uprising, artfully evoking the everyday struggle ignited by a fatal act of police violence that Thatcher's government refused to address. This of course also gives the story a timely kick.

The sparky cast creates vivid characters, giving performances that are relaxed and earthy. Cole invests Alex with an intensity that remains likeable even as he hangs with all the wrong people. Antics with his rowdy Brixton friends are snappy and pointed, and the scenes with Gee's eloquent and often hilarious Simeon bring the gurgling subtext roaring engagingly to the surface. Other characters have huge presence, even if they aren't on-screen long enough to register properly.

Like the other Small Axe films, this slice of London life has rarely been depicted on-screen, and McQueen skilfully rejects the stereotypes. These people are so much more than druggies or troublemakers: they're simply trying to make a life in a world that's tilted against them. So when Simeon encourages Alex to rise above that, to build his intellect and take on the system with his words, this mindful film becomes both inspirational and urgent.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 3.Dec.20

Nb. This film is part of McQueen's five-film series Small Axe, exploring Britain's black culture. It's named after the Bob Marley song, based on an African proverb about how people working together can take down a big tree.

Modern Persuasion  
Review by Rich Cline | 2/5
Modern Persuasion
dir Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki
scr Jonathan Lisecki, Barbara Radecki
prd Alex Appel, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell
with Alicia Witt, Shane McRae, Bebe Neuwirth, Dominic Rains, Chris O'Shea, Mark Moses, Jenn Harris, Daniella Pineda, Li Jun Li, Liza Lapira, Mark St Cyr, Adrienne C Moore
release US 18.Dec.20,
UK 8.Feb.21
20/US 1h27

Is it streaming?

mcrae and witt
Snappy and silly, this lightly romantic-comedy is loosely based on Jane Austen's 1817 novel, now set in present-day New York. The usual story of love lost and rekindled, it's cute and watchable. But the adaptation is patchy, so the story and characters feel seriously undercooked. Still, the ensemble cast gives it a go, and along the way they have quite a lot of fun, some of which is infectious.

With her marketing company in need of business, Wren (Witt) finds herself pitching for work on a social network created by her ex-boyfriend Owen (McRae), who blanks her. Her assistants (Pineda and Li) seal the deal, and the firm's partners (Moses and Harris) are relieved to have a big new client. Wren finds it emotional to work with the one that got away, so her mentor Vanessa (Neuwirth) fixes her up with Tyler (O'Shea). Then Wren clicks with Owen's boss Sam (Rains), complicating things as everyone heads off for a weekend retreat in the Hamptons.
The script simplistically peppers in contrived details, such as Wren being forced to wear revealing outfits all weekend because she lost her suitcase. And the filmmakers rely lazily on audience expectations of the genre, neglecting to establish situations or connections because it's already clear who these people are and where they're headed. Even without surprises, the fizzy connections between these good-looking actors keep us engaged.

Witt is likeable as Wren, providing a hint of depth as a young woman who is struggling to balance work with a personal life. No one in the flurry of supporting characters around here is remotely complex, but the actors bring a spark of attitude to each role, and the farcical romantic connections between them offer plenty of chance for flirtation. Still, none of these people feel like flesh-and-blood human beings with their own lives off-screen. And aside from Wren, everyone is eerily free of self-awareness.

The movie's chirpy tone creates a cheap and cheerful vibe that's easy to watch, even if none of the people, companies, places or events are defined in any way. The premise, about a career woman getting a second chance at love, is ripe for reinvention in this setting, so it's frustrating that the screenplay never bothers to dig beneath the pretty surface and mine the themes for either humour or meaning. So the plot's conflicts feel pushy and inorganic. But for fans of the genre, that might not be a problem.

cert pg themes, language 16.Dec.20

Sister of the Groom  
Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
Sister of the Groom
dir-scr Amy Miller Gross
prd Amy Miller Gross, Andrew Carlberg, Tim Harms
with Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Mathilde Ollivier, Jake Hoffman, Charlie Bewley, Mark Blum, Ronald Guttman, Noah Silver, Abigail Marlowe, Lee Reitelman, Deeva Green, Julie Engelbrecht
release US 18.Dec.20,
UK 21.Dec.20
20/US 1h32

Is it streaming?

silverstone and hoffman
While this movie's premise suggests a comedy, this is actually a lightly serious drama about family connections. Most set-pieces have the usual romcom elements, from awkward interaction to corny physical slapstick. But writer-director Amy Miller Gross never plays it for laughs, opting instead to explore darker feelings. And while she also indulges in some badly contrived twists and turns in the plot, the film has some nice things to say.
On her 40th birthday weekend, architect Audrey (Silverstone) travels back home with her husband Ethan (Scott) to attend the marriage of her younger brother Liam (Hoffman) and his French fiancee Clemence (Ollivier). But tensions arise that make Audrey worry about her future relationship with Liam, especially since Clemence has hired rival architect Isaac (Bewley), Audrey's ex, to rebuild the family house. Over the days leading up to the ceremony, she tries to reach out, but Clemence only makes everything more difficult, so Audrey decides she has to stop this wedding.
As these people swirl around each other, there are the usual miscommunications, little digs and nasty coincidences. Clemence's passive aggression is met by Audrey's increasing loss of control. The dialog is packed with little zingers that add real-life humour even in some pained situations. And several implausible things that happen along the way badly undermine the story's impact, adding unnecessarily wacky touches that strain to add either humour or drama.

Performances are relaxed, giving the film a breezy tone that nicely balances the story's bleaker undercurrents. Silverstone gives Audrey a lovely complexity, a woman who can't quite accept her age, knowing that she opted to raise her children instead of build her career. Her close connections with Scott, Hoffman and Blum (as her father) are very nicely played, as is her unexpected reunion with Bewley, whose presence at the wedding raises several issues for her. And Ollivier's Clemence is superbly charming, open-hearted and cruelly oblivious.

It's intriguing to see Gross subvert the cliches of the genre, allowing the story to head down thoughtful, even downright melancholy paths. And along the way there are terrific observations on issues relating to the complex depth of family relationships, the fears that flare up as middle age approaches, and the realisation of how our choices have sent our lives in directions we never expected to go. Some of this is rather heavy handed, as is the wave of romantic sentiment in the final act. But at least it leaves us with a smile.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 16.Dec.20

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