Wicked Little Letters is entertaining and Musica delightful, Monkey Man an impressive action debut

Letters an entertaining tale of slander and pain

In 1920, a scandal broke out in Littlehampton, England, that rocked the community to its core and resulted in two sensational trials that left its citizens in shock and disbelief. A series of anonymously written letters had been sent to Edith Swan and her family, missives that contained vile, shocking insults and accusations. The contents of these poison pen notes were so unseemly, they were not read aloud at the subsequent trials that resulted from these actions. As time passed, Edith's clients from her laundry service began receiving threatening letters, telling them to suspend their business with her, as did her brother's employer, accusing her sibling of theft.

Edith pointed the finger at her neighbor and former friend, Rose Gooding. Assumptions were made, and conclusions quickly drawn that she was the culprit, all of this based on her penchant for using colorful language and reputation for ribald behavior. Thea Sharrock's Wicked Little Letters recounts these events and their aftermath, a story with its fair share of twists and turns, coupled with a rather simplistic look at mental illness. At times funny, at others tragic, this is a fascinating story that plays out as a precursor to the cyber-bullying of today, in which insults and recriminations are thrown at their targets from a safe distance.

To be sure, some liberties have been taken with the story, but they're in service of its theme and intent, streamlining events and condensing multiple characters into single ones. We see Rose (Jesse Buckley) as a single mother to her daughter. Nancy (Alisha Weir), the Irish immigrant struggling to make ends meet as well as keep a tidy house. Casting herself as a missionary of sorts, intent on saving this wayward soul, her neighbor Edith Swan (Olivia Coleman) befriends her, and as these two couldn't be more different, it's a companionship that's strained from the start.

The screenplay by Jonny Sweet weaves in a whimsical subplot involving Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), a female police officer in the Littlehampton department who, after being brushed aside and considered a token hire, sets out to solve the case. With the help of a band of eccentrics and invisible ink, they finally get to the bottom of things. Sharrock and her cast create a light-hearted tone with this plotline that effectively counters the serious goings-on in the rest of the film. When attacked, anger is often the first response, followed by the urge to defend oneself. As a result, we don't initially see just why those who wish to do us harm are behaving as they do. Letters remind us in stark terms and an entertaining manner, that there is always more than meets the eye and that those who attack us are likely in more pain than we can imagine. In theaters.

Musica a delightful musical daydream

I'd be hard-pressed to think of a recent movie with more energy and innovation than Rudy Mancuso's Musica, a delightful musical that charts the struggles of a young man who hears the world around him in a much different way than you and I. Over its brisk 90-minute running time, a standard rom-com is transformed into a delightful journey in which we witness our hero finally discover how to use his unusual gift to change his life while impacting others along the way.

Mancuso, who not only directs but co-wrote and stars in the film, is Rudy. That he uses his own name as the character is no accident as we are told early on that, "This is based on a true story...unfortunately." A sense of ironic humor runs throughout, as one pitfall after another thwarts Rudy's plans, which are nebulous at best. His relationship with Haley (Francesca Reale), who he's been dating for four years, is stalled and he shows no enthusiasm towards his studies, about to complete a business degree he has no use for.

The world for Rudy is one replete with songs. In a diner, amid the cacophony of a floor being swept, metal spatulas being scrapped on a steel grill and the ringing of a bell to signal orders are ready, he hears music. Whether in a park, at a bar or in a store, melody surrounds him, tunes that only he can hear distract him throughout the day. The viewer is privy to this as well, what with elaborate song-and-dance sequences breaking out wherever Rudy is daydreaming. Footsteps, paper rustling and page turning prompt a routine on a bus; girls jumping rope, basketballs being dribbled and birds chirping are the basis for a breakdown in a park; while the goings-on in a hospital, hair salon and fish store provide the organic sounds necessary for still more symphonies in Rudy's head.

These constant distractions mean he's not always fully engaged with Haley, who has tired of his seeming lack of attention. Fortunately, his path crosses that of Isabella (Camila Mendes) in a meet-cute involving an errant flounder that conks him in the head. (It makes sense when you see it.) The energy in the musical scenes propels the film, but it's Mancuso's charm that provides the heart and soul of the picture. We sympathize with his plight, hoping he can find his way and when the less-than-successful puppet routine he uses as a busker in the New York Subway proves to be his way out, you can't help but smile. Charming, hopeful, and winning, Musica is an impressive calling-card for Mancuso, an obvious talent with a bright future. Streaming on Amazon.

Monkey Man an impressive directorial debut

Cut from the same cloth as the John Wick movies, Dev Patel's Monkey Man is an impressive action debut for the actor, stepping behind the camera for the first time to deliver a ferocious film that, if it has a fault, goes a bit too far in the mayhem it contains. Whereas the Keanu Reeves' features are slickly executed and exist in a world that gleams and shimmer, this environment is sloppy and gritty, one that reflects the hero's messy motives and feral sense of violence. Narratively, the movie fails to coalesce in bringing together genre tropes, Hindu mythology and Indian politics, but that's not for lack of trying.

While a child, Bobby (Patel) would hear stories of the monkey god Hanuman from his mother, mesmerized by the tale of a commander whose powers of strength were robbed from him by the gods. Through tenacity and sheer will, he rescues his wife from a demon, a quality Bobby emulates when he wears a monkey mask while waging battle nightly at a fight club in Yatana. And while he is usually the loser in these contests, our hero has something up his sleeve, as his plan is to get closer to Rana Singh (Sikander Kher), the corrupt police chief responsible for his mother's death.

On his long journey toward revenge, he encounters and employs many others in his quest. His sidekick Alphonso (Pitobash) proves useful on many occasions, as does Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), an escort he's drawn to. Alpha (Vipin Sharma), the leader of a tribe of third-gender people also come to his aid, offering training and a stark reminder of his purpose.

On the surface, Patel would seem an unlikely action hero. Yet, that is part of the appeal. To be sure, he doesn't have the bulk of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cool presence of Reeves or the quip-ready-wit of Bruce Willis. He lets us know he's turned himself into a lean, mean fighting machine and the tenacity and drive he displays in portraying the Kid is what makes the character and appealing. There may be bigger, stronger and quicker opponents he must contend with, but there's no doubt that no matter what obstacles come his way, he won't quit until he enacts his revenge. This everyman appeal, as well as the sharply choreographed fight sequences, make Monkey Man an impressive addition to the already crowded action genre. In theaters.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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  • Spring Cantata

    @ Springfield First United Methodist Church

    Sun., May 19, 10:30 a.m.