A Call to Spy
Few things remind us of what might have been than a fascinating story told without the pulsing urgency it deserves. That's the case with A Call to Spy, the story of a secret British intelligence organization that sent women into unoccupied territory in France to report on German activities during the early days of World War II. Composed largely of amateurs, the force put many women at risk as they tried to gather intelligence on the invading Nazis. The story begins in 1941. A Jewish refugee from Romania, Vera Atkins (Stana Katnic) takes charge of recruiting efforts while she attempts to obtain papers that will allow her to remain in London. The movie focuses mostly on one of Atkins' recruits. Sarah Megan Thomas portrays Virginia Hall, an American woman who unsuccessfully tried to join the US diplomatic core. She's also disabled. Having lost a leg in an accident, she now has one wooden leg. Radhika Apte plays Noor Inayat Khan, a wireless operator who also becomes part of the force. The spies face a variety of difficulties: encounters with complicit residents of France and with German soldiers who were poised to complete the occupation. Director Lydia Dean Pilcher has hold of a strong story that isn't widely known. Moreover, Thomas' escape from occupied France, which required crossing the Pyrenees on foot, generates something close to amazement. Still, A Call to Spy fails to take full advantage of the thriller elements that might have elevated it from a movie of interest to a movie of riveting power.
Bert Trautmann became a sports icon in Britain, having played goal keeper for Manchester City from 1949 to 1964. Trautmann's ascendance as a national football hero took off in 1956 when he guided Manchester to a championship in a game he finished despite having broken his neck. But Trautmann was not a typical British sports figure. Born in Bremen, he fought for the Germans during World War II before landing in Britain as a prisoner of war. He stayed and met with plenty of resistance, particularly early on when memories of the war were still vivid. The Keeper, a movie directed by Marcus H. Rosenmuller, takes a by-the-numbers approach to Trautmann's story. David Kross stars as the goalkeeper who wins over his future wife's cantankerous father (John Henshaw). Trautmann and his British wife (Freya Mavor) later lost a young son in an accident. Harry Melling appears as the British sergeant who works extra hard to make life miserable for the German prisoners he supervises in England. As can be the case with movies that want to make clear points (in this case, one about forgiveness), The Keeper isn't strong on nuance. The movie mostly accepts Trautmann's assertion that he was a young soldier with no alternative but to fight in the Wehrmacht. An appealing cast sells the story, but questions of choice and complicity don't always fit neatly into a sports story that features a likable main character whose “guilt” is concentrated in a single war-time incident.
Once Upon a RiverAdapting a coming-of-age novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, director Haroula Rose drains her movie of everything that might be deemed inessential. Her sparse rendering of a story about 15-year-old Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) feels like the kind of effort that once defined indie cinema -- minimal and striving for authenticity. Margo lives with her Native American father (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan. A sexual episode with a predatory uncle (Coburn Goss) sparks a story that puts Margo in flight. She commandeers a rowboat and takes to the river that flows past the small town where she lives. Her goal: to find the mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) she hasn't seen for years. En route, Margot meets a young man (Ajuawak Kapashesit) who sleeps with her but urges her to go back to school lest her life drift into as series of hopeless dead-end jobs. Later, she finds temporary refuge with a dying old man (John Ashton), still chain-smoking despite his emphysema. Rose works hard at capturing her characters in real and unvarnished fashion. Moreover, Margo's ultimate reunion with her mother brims with obvious realizations about the yawning gap between them. Well and good, but Once Upon a River -- set during the '70s -- doesn't always work on an affective level. Emotionally well-defended and somewhat stoic, Margo isn't the easiest character to approach. Too often, the movie leaves on the outside looking in.