Love, loss and friendship in the shadow of war

Summerland Alice
Gemma Arterton as reclusive writer Alice Lamb in Summerland (Photo by Michael Wharley/Flying Castles Ltd.)

By Richard Ades

Alice Lamb doesn’t care much for people, and she especially has it in for children. So when she’s asked to take in an adolescent boy who’s fled German bombing raids, she agrees only because she’s given no other choice.

That’s the setup of Summerland, a drama set on the cliff-strewn coast of England during World War II. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, it spins its tale of friendship and lost love in a way that’s pleasant and beautiful but a bit too contrived to ring true.

Partial spoiler alert! Viewers may find some of the film’s contrivances easier to accept after a last-minute revelation places them in context. But until then, our sense of reality is challenged.

For starters, we simply don’t believe that Alice (Gemma Arterton) is as misanthropic as she seems. True, the writer lives alone in a seaside home and rails against anyone who dares to interrupt her work, but her angry words seem like mere affectations when spoken by this young woman with the pretty, unlined face. Thus, when a London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) finds refuge under her roof, we have no doubt she’ll eventually warm up to him. The only question is when and how.

A series of flashbacks explain Alice’s lonely and bitter existence. At some time in the past, she found a soulmate in the form of warmhearted Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but their relationship apparently hit a snag. Back in the “present,” she eventually confides this loss to the inquisitive Frank, who reacts in a way that’s surprisingly mature for both his age and his era. She’s moved, while we’re given one more reason to doubt the tale’s authenticity.

More convincing than the friendship between Alice and Frank is the one Frank develops with his stubbornly individualistic classmate, Edie. That’s partly because Edie is wonderfully portrayed by Dixie Egerickx (star of an upcoming remake of The Secret Garden), but mostly because the two aren’t forced to mold their characters to suit the movie’s plot points.

Speaking of which, Alice and Frank soon begin discussing bits of the folklore that Alice studies and writes about, including “floating islands” and “Summerland,” a kind of pagan paradise. These inevitably make their way into the story, as do developments that are rather too convenient to be believed. (Second spoiler alert! But then, maybe they shouldn’t be, according to the aforementioned revelation.)

With a soaring score by Volker Bertelman and gorgeous seaside cinematography by Laurie Rose, Summerland is a lovely way to spend an hour and 40 minutes. Just don’t expect to see anything that bears much resemblance to real life.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 31.


Former ‘Moonie’ struggles to move on

Blessed Child Cara Jones 1
Cara Jones (center) is married in one of the Unification Church’s typical mass weddings. Her marriage later ended in divorce.

By Richard Ades

In the 1970s, the country was struggling to recover from the dual tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency. That helps to explain why so many Americans were attracted to the “Moonies,” a Korean-born cult that promised to unite and heal the world.

Blessed Child is a documentary by and about a woman who was raised in a Moonie family and found the religion a comfort and an inspiration—until it wasn’t. Then it became an impediment to her happiness and threatened to drive a wedge between her and her devout parents.

Directed by Cara Jones and filmed by her brother Bow, the doc is a gentle yet wrenching portrait of a family that was at first united and later divided by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

An early voice-over explains the church’s unique ideology. Moon believed in the power of marriage to help the world overcome sin and prejudice. Accordingly, he regularly organized mass weddings of couples he’d personally “matched,” often with the express purpose of combining people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also discouraged premarital relations, being convinced that sex was the “original sin” that had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Moon’s belief system appealed to idealistic young people like Cara’s future father, Farley Jones, who converted in the ’60s. Farley then persuaded a Catholic girl named Betsy to join up, and the two married (after being matched by Moon) and proceeded to raise four sons and a daughter in the Unification Church.

Contemporary interviews and home movies reveal that the family became something akin to Moonie celebrities after Farley was named president of the faith’s American branch. So prominent were they that young Cara began to hope she eventually would be matched with one of Moon’s own sons. It’s probably not a coincidence that her faith began to wane when she wasn’t, instead being paired with a man who felt more like a younger brother than a husband. But by the time her marriage ended in divorce, it also had become clear that Moon wasn’t quite as pure and angelic as he’d seemed.

While it spends sufficient time explaining the eccentricities and shortcomings of the Unification Church, Blessed Child’s main theme is the lasting effect it’s had on former members like Cara. Long after leaving the church, many still struggle with feelings of failure and regret that make it difficult to get on with their lives. And it’s all the harder for people like Cara whose parents remain true believers.

If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that Cara’s central tale is almost overshadowed by that of her brother Bow. As a boy who realized early on that he was gay, Bow couldn’t feel at home in a faith devoted to heterosexual marriage. And yet he was—and apparently still is—as susceptible as anyone to its idealistic vision of a world united by love and acceptance.

Blessed Child takes us on an engrossing journey as it relates Cara’s efforts to heal old wounds and come to terms with her past. Even so, the closing credits may leave viewers with a nagging question: But what about Bow?

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Blessed Child (no MPAA rating) is available beginning July 17 on iTunes, Google and Amazon.

Love in the time of coronavirus


By Richard Ades

In a recent “Dilbert” cartoon, the hapless title employee talks about his hope of hooking up with a woman he’d met through virtual contract negotiations—even though, as it turns out, he’s seen only the part of her face that wasn’t hidden by a mask, a shower cap and an eye patch.

For those who lack a regular partner, a pandemic-induced quarantine is hardly the ideal environment for romance. And yet, people can’t turn off their libido simply because it’s not convenient. Recently, the New York City health department acknowledged this fact by releasing guidelines for how to deal with intimacy while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19.

One suggestion it missed: Have a romantic encounter while separated by a thick window several stories above the street. That’s the situation described in Squeegee, an 11-minute film written and directed by Morgan Krantz.

It begins as Lori (Amy Rutherford), a well-dressed executive, is rushing to her downtown office building. Once she’s inside, an assistant (Emily Jane King) tries to corral her for a meeting with waiting guests, but Lori tells her to stall them. She then locks herself in her office and, oddly, uses a spray bottle and tissues to wipe off the window.

In a moment, we see why. A young window washer (played by Blair McKenzie, who actually cleans windows in real life) lowers himself into view outside her office. After efficiently doing his job with water and a squeegee, he waits expectantly. Soon the two are carrying on what apparently is an ongoing relationship involving playful flirting and even a bit more.

Though clearly made in pre-quarantine times, Squeegee could not be timelier. Its depiction of romance under the constraints of social distancing—“social” possibly having more than one meaning here—results in a film that’s funny, sexy, sad and even a bit profound.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Squeegee (recommended for mature audiences) is available on Vimeo.

My mom, the cinematic legend

The Truth
Movie star Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve, center) is visited by daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) in The Truth.

By Richard Ades

The Truth is a startling change of pace for Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (2018’s Shoplifters), being a French film with two very French leading ladies. In a different sense, though, it’s not startling at all.

Though the plot hinges on the prickly relationship between aging movie star Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter/daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), the implicit subject is the world of movies. And moviemakers love to make movies about moviemaking, as Quentin Tarantino did just last year with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

The Truth takes its title from Fabienne’s new memoir, whose upcoming debut has prompted a visit from New York-based Lumir and her actor/husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and young daughter, Charlotte (Clementine Grenier). But the book hardly lives up to its name, Lumir finds, as it describes a warm mother-daughter relationship that never actually existed. Asked about this, Fabienne huffily replies that, being an actor, she feels no obligation to be shackled by reality.

We soon learn that Fabienne actually feels little obligation to anything but her craft. She routinely ignores or insults those around her, including her past and current lovers (played by Christian Crahay, Alain Libolt and Roger Van Hool). Frankly, she’s a monster, as she proved long ago during an incident that still haunts Lumir and may even haunt Fabienne herself.

Even so, most people let Fabienne get away with such behavior because she’s a living legend. And so do we, the viewers, if only because she’s played by a beloved living legend.

Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and Lumir (Juliette Binoche) share a rare moment of mother-daughter ease.

As Fabienne, Deneuve is as cool and self-possessed as ever, though not quite as enigmatic as she was in some of her classic roles. The script isn’t subtle about the fact that she behaves the way she does because nothing matters to her except acting.

That makes it hard to get involved in the mother-daughter relationship that’s at the center of the film. It’s clear that Lumir wishes Fabienne had been as warm a mother to her as she is to her own daughter. But it’s also clear that, for Fabienne, duty to her daughter and others will always be outranked by her duty to cinema.

One gets the feeling that, for writer/director Koreeda, that’s as it should be. Maybe that’s why, despite being a handsome work with a great cast, The Truth is likely to appeal more to hardcore cinephiles than to the general public.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Truth (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 3.