I Care a Lot

21/02/21

Amazon Prime

The ‘carer’ in this story is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a woman who – it soon becomes clear – cares only for herself and her lover, Fran (Eliza Gonzalez). Exploiting the law by bribing doctors, Marla has become adept at identifying vulnerable elderly people and getting herself appointed as their legal guardian, whereupon she is free to exploit them for her own profit. She gleefully sells off their homes, their possessions, the little treasures they have accumulated over the years, paying herself a healthy wage from the proceeds and siphoning off whatever she thinks she can get away with.

If it all seems a bit far-fetched, think again. In America, such shenanigans are perfectly permissible and writer/director J Blakeson has no hesitation in pointing up the iniquities of the system.

Marla sets her sights on her latest victim: rich loner, Jennifer Paterson (Dianne Wiest). Before Jennifer quite knows what’s happening to her, she is drugged up and incarcerated in a care home. It’s at this point that Marla realises she may have bitten off more than she can chew. The records state that Jennifer has no kin, but it turns out she actually has a secret son, Roman (Peter Dinklage), a man who – though small in stature – is a powerful and ruthless criminal, who will stop at nothing to get his beloved momma back.

I Care a Lot has a great deal going for it, not least what could be a career-best performance from Pike, whose portrayal of Marla is extraordinary. She paints her as a venomous, heartless machine, able to mask her raging avarice behind a dazzling smile and a haircut of such precision it looks like it’s been achieved using a set square. Wiest is pretty good too, but she’s criminally under-used here, which is a shame, because she has been gifted with the film’s finest one-liner. And Dinklage also convinces as a ruthless mafioso, a man you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

The main problem for me however, is that there’s really nobody in this story to root for, since every character I’m introduced to is as venal and self-centred as the last. Even Jennifer isn’t the innocent she at first appears to be. It really says something when the people on the right side of the law are even viler than those who are openly flouting it, but it’s not enough for me. I find myself wanting a character – just one – that I can actually relate to.

The film’s middle section boils down to a series of complicated tussles between Marla and Roman, both of them intent on beating the other at all costs. Though these scenes are cleverly staged, they are somehow less interesting than the film’s central tenet. However, just when I think it’s all going off the rails, Blakeson manages to snatch everything back with a conclusion that comes swaggering in out of left field and actually leaves me gasping. I really don’t see it coming.

I Care a Lot isn’t perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very good and – for the best part of its nearly two hours’ running time – it does manage to keep me glued to the screen. It also makes me rage with anger at what can happen to elderly people locked up in the moral maze of the American health care system.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Greenland

18/02/21

Amazon Prime Video

Greenland is a disaster movie starring Gerard Butler.

I appreciate that in normal circumstances this opening sentence might be enough to dissuade many viewers from the idea of further investigation, so let me quickly add that it’s nothing like the usual Gerard Butler experience. At no point during this film does his character attempt to take on a comet with his bare hands, nor does he stare at the sky and bellow something incomprehensible. Indeed, so restrained is his performance that the nearest he comes to his regular screen persona is in a brief sequence where he buries a clawhammer in someone’s skull – but, even then, he has been severely provoked.

Butler plays structural engineer John Garrity, an everyday Joe, getting though a normal working week, and then hurrying home to try and patch up a failing marriage with estranged wife, Alison (Morena Baccarin), before doing the shopping for his young son’s birthday party. Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) is a diabetic (a fact that will figure prominently later on). He’s excited by the news that a comet, innocuously named Clarke, will soon be passing close by the earth, and it promises to provide quite a light show when its fragments begin to enter the atmosphere.

But in the supermarket, John receives a strange phone call informing him that he, together with his wife and child, have been allotted seats on a military aircraft taking them to ‘an emergency shelter.’ They must drop everything, pack a bag and report to the nearest air force base. John’s first thought is that it’s some kind of hoax. But then parts of Clarke start hitting the earth with terrifying force and all thoughts of a celebration are abandoned as the family’s first consideration becomes an urgent need to make that flight…

Greenland manages to avoid the pitfalls that blight so many of its disaster-movie predecessors. Director Ric Roman Waugh and writer Chris Sparling ensure that everything that happens is kept within the point of view of John and his family – even the inevitable explosive set-pieces are generally glimpsed on screens as they make their way across the country, a device which adds a queasy shot of realism to the proceedings. Unable to make their original flight, the trio head North, first playing a flying visit to Alison’s widowed father, Dale (Scott Glenn), and then making a desperate dash across the border into Canada, in the hope of getting aboard a flight bound for the titular island, where they are assured their only hope of survival lies.

Along the way, they encounter all kinds of hitches, most of them provided by people who haven’t been assigned a seat on a plane and who will go to just about any lengths to get their hands on one. Here is the proof, were it ever needed, that people under pressure are capable of terrible things.

The story mostly holds together (I’m sure I picked up a sizeable plot hole towards the end) and, to give the film its due, it keeps me hooked right up to the end credits and hammers through its two hour running time at a breathless, headlong gallop. It also supplies what must be Butler’s most credible performance yet. Will he follow this new path onwards or go back to his more usual “punch’em ups?” Only time will tell on that score.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The White Tiger

13/02/21

Netflix

Adaptations of literary bestsellers are notoriously difficult to pull off, but clearly nobody mentioned this to writer/director Ramin Bahrani. He launches into his version of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel with such irresistible gusto, we’re swept up in it almost before we have time to draw breath. Dropping us briefly into a pivotal moment in our young protagonist’s life, he then flings us headlong into the character’s present, before winding us all the way back to the very beginning, the narrative powered onwards on a raft of irresistible Asian pop.

The White Tiger is, of course, the picaresque tale of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), as told to the Chinese Premier, We Jabao, on the eve of his trade trip to India. This is a narrative device that seems as unnecessary here as it did in the source novel, but no matter, it doesn’t really cause any problems. Balram is an impoverished kid from an impoverished family living in a rural village in India. He dares to dream of escaping from the seemingly endless cycle of poverty into which his caste – the sweet-makers – places him. After borrowing money from his grandmother for ‘driving lessons,’ he heads for Delhi and approaches the crooked landlord of his village, managing to acquire the job of driver to the man’s youngest son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), recently returned from America with his wife, Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra), in tow.

At first, the working relationship is cordial enough. Ashok appears to want none of the bowing and scraping that his father and older brothers demand from their employees, insisting that Balram calls him by his first name, urging him to refrain from opening doors for him, etc., but, when the narrative finally returns to that briefly glimpsed pivotal moment, it becomes clear that the yawning void between master and servant can never be successfully crossed – and that it’s going to take some drastic action of Balram’s part if he’s ever going to become his own man…

Built around an adorable central performance by Gourav, The White Tiger never pulls its punches and paints a vivid picture of a world where deceit and corruption appear to be an integral part of society: where those who dream of escaping to a better life must be prepared to tread on the lives friends and families in order to achieve their goals – and where nobody, not even a close family member, can ever truly be trusted.

This is a cracking film that hammers through its two hour and five minutes running time without ever running out of momentum. It’s vivacious, funny and occasionally heart-rending. If only all literary adaptations could be as sprightly as this one.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Banker

12/02/21

Apple TV

On the face of it, a ‘based on a true story’ film about two guys who decide to set themselves up as landlords sounds like it might make for fairly dull viewing.

But, when I tell you that the true story is set in America in the 1950s and 60s – and that the two guys in question are African Americans – you might begin to appreciate that there’s more to it than initially meets the eye.

In this Apple original, finally available after some protracted – and rather unpleasant – legal wrangles, Anthony Mackie stars as Bernard Garrett, a maths prodigy who, since childhood, has hankered after a career in real estate. He’s well aware, however, that the only way a man of his colour is likely to set foot in the swanky properties he longs to own, is if he’s wearing a janitor’s overalls. Undeterred, he sets to with a will and gradually begins to amass a portfolio. When he spots an opportunity to acquire the buildings where one of Los Angeles’ biggest banks is situated, he approaches wealthy club owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) to help raise the necessary finance.

Joe himself owns quite a few properties around the city but has learned from experience that, even in liberal LA, nobody is going to allow two black guys to get away with something as audacious as openly owning such fancy real estate. So they hit on a plan: hiring Bernard’s employee and friend, the handsome, hapless and – crucially – white Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to be the visible ‘face’ of the enterprise. After some intensive coaching – which includes memorising complicated figures and (really important this) learning to play golf – the ruse works like a dream and soon Bernard and Joe (and Matt) are doing very nicely, thank you.

But then Bernard pays a visit to his father in his Texas hometown, and notices a nice little neighbourhood bank, all ready for the taking. Why not just buy the place? Then he can offer loans to the many black families in the area that can’t currently enjoy such a luxury. Joe is against the notion from the start, but Bernard manages to persuade him. Once again, they’ll put Matt in there as a figurehead. It worked before, right? But all three men are to discover that what works in Los Angeles just doesn’t fly in Texas…

The shameful truths behind this story are impossible to ignore. Certainly, for that first transaction, Bernard and Joe’s only crime is that their skin is the wrong colour. Think about that for a moment. Even in the supposedly progressive 1960s, two black men could not be seen to own expensive property. That is, although they could legally own it, in truth they couldn’t do so openly, because if it ever came to light, hundreds of horrified customers would close their accounts and run screaming in the direction of another bank. Kind of puts the great American Dream into sobering perspective, doesn’t it?

If I’ve made the film sound po-faced, it’s not. The screenplay, co-written by director George Nolfi, successfully mines what vestiges of humour there are in the situation, particularly in the early stretches when it all seems like a bit of a lark. Jackson’s caustic one-liners are particularly good. Of course, the treatment that Bernard and Joe subsequently receive at the hands of the American judicial system is anything but funny, though hearing that the case eventually helped to change the law does provide some consolation.

So if you’re ever going to watch a movie about two would-be landlords, this is definitely the one to go for.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Memories of Murder

11/02/21

Apple TV

2020 will be remembered for many things and, alas, very few of them good ones – but it was the year that Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary film Parasite conquered the Oscars, carving its way through the opposition with apparent ease. For the director, it was the culmination of a varied career in cinema. Of course, he had already acquired many fans along the way, myself included. His 2016 monster movie, The Host is one of the best examples of an often underwhelming genre, while his 2013 film, Snowpiercer, though virtually annihilated by studio intervention, and never given a theatrical release, was subsequently adapted into a very successful Netflix series.

So the chance to revisit the director’s second feature, 2003’s Memories of Murder, is an opportunity not to be missed, especially when it comes with a dazzling 4K restoration.

Inspired by South Korea’s first recorded serial killer case and set in the 1980s, the film depicts how a police force in a remote province struggles to come to terms with a series of baffling murders. Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) is a rough-and-ready cop, convinced that he can identify a guilty suspect simply by looking at them, and ever ready to beat out a confession, aided by his even more quick-fisted assistant, Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim). But when Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul, he applies a more sophisticated approach to the investigation, quickly establishing that the department’s current chief suspect could never have committed the crime.

The two detectives find themselves at loggerheads and, as each new lead takes them down a series of bewildering rabbit holes, it’s anybody’s guess which of their approaches will prove most successful…

Memories of Murder manages to take a well-worn cinematic path and reinvent it as it goes. It’s hard to think of a Western serial killer film that so audaciously interweaves slapstick comedy throughout a very serious storyline, but it’s pulled off here with apparent ease. An early sequence, where the poorly-equipped cops flail oafishly around a crime scene, is perfectly judged – and it’s just the start, as Park Doo-man blunders headlong through a series of disasters, always managing to jump to the wrong conclusion, always missing the evidence that dangles right in front of his – supposedly magical – gaze. We really ought to hate him, but Kang-ho Sang somehow makes him immensely likeable – the same trick he managed so effectively in Parasite.

Meanwhile, his supposedly more sophisticated rival, Seo Tae-yoon, is driven by his own internal demons and, when he finally fixes on a possible suspect, finds himself in serious danger of resorting to the kind of approach he so despises. It’s at the film’s conclusion where the story really delivers its most powerful gut-punch, with a final shot that lingers in the memory.

This is far above the usual crime procedural. And, lest I give the impression that it’s a film that was unfairly ignored on first release, don’t be fooled. Memories of Murder won 31 awards at film festivals around Asia.

It’s simply that it took Oscar quite some time to catch on to a good thing.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

News of the World

11/02/21

Netflix

Director Paul Greengrass is generally considered an ‘action’ director.

With three Jason Bourne films to his credit, Captain Philips and the Anders Breivick movie, 22 July, he’s established a reputation for the use of hand-held cameras, rapid cutting and heart-stopping stunts, all designed to keep his public biting their collective fingernails. News of the World seems an unlikely vehicle for his talents. For one thing, it’s a western. For another, the story unfolds in a slow – one might even say ‘stately’ manner – and, while it’s strong on period detail, handsomely filmed and and nicely acted, there are no real surprises in this narrative.

In the years following the civil war, former Confederate officer Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) plies a humble trade, riding from town-to-town with a selection of newspapers, from which he reads extracts to grateful audiences. His aim is to inform them about the massive changes taking place in this ‘Brave New West.’ As he travels across the land in his ramshackle wagon, we witness some of those changes – and few of them are for the better: buffalo are being slaughtered for profit, Native Americans are herded off the land they’ve owned for centuries, and there are some small town entrepreneurs determined to make Kidd tell the local news in ways that make them look like heroes, no matter how heinous their actions.

But Kidd is steadfast. Facts are facts and he has little tolerance for fantasy, even when sticking to the truth spells danger.

Matters take an unexpected turn, when Kidd chances on Johanna (Helena Zengal), a thirteen-year-old German girl who has been the captive of a tribe of Kiowa for many years – the same Kiowa who murdered her parents when she was little. She has recently been ‘liberated’ and was en route to her surviving relatives in Castroville, Texas, when persons unknown decided to lynch the black trooper who was escorting her. After fruitless attempts to get somebody else to take on the responsibility, Kidd realises his only option is to accompany her himself, a trip of some 400 miles. At first it’s an uneasy alliance – Johanna only speaks Kiowa, so she and Kidd have to rely on signs and gestures to communicate. But as they travel onwards, so the ice thaws, and their friendship begins to develop…

To give the film its due, there is some welcome action in the middle section, when Kidd and Johanna are pursued by three sleazy drifters, determined to ‘acquire’ the girl so they can put her to work as a prostitute. It’s only in the ensuing chase sequence that we see some flashes of Greengrass’s action credentials – but, all too soon, we’re back to that leisurely pace as the odd couple close in on their destination, the point where they must finally part company.

Don’t get me wrong, this is entertaining stuff and Greengrass manages to make the theme of the importance of an impartial press feel relevant to contemporary America. Hanks offers another of his seemingly endless collection of taciturn heroes, and Zengal, who made such an impression in System Crasher, gets the most out of a role where she barely has an opportunity to speak.

But I’d have been happier if some of the events depicted here didn’t have quite such predictable outcomes.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Palmer

05/02/21

Apple TV

Justin Timberlake plays the eponymous Palmer in this gentle, life-affirming film. At its heart, Palmer is an odd-couple movie, charting the unlikely alliance between a fists-first felon and a princess-obsessed little boy.

Palmer has just been released from prison after serving a twelve-year sentence for attempted murder. He moves back in with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), and reunites with his old schoolmates. He has a lot to deal with, of course: learning to accept the past, and trying to forge a future for himself.

But there’s trouble literally in his yard, where the drug-addicted Shelly (Juno Temple) rents a trailer from Vivian. Shelly is sweet but chaotic; her on-off boyfriend, Jerry (Dean Winters), is the shouty, violent sort. And, in the midst of all this turbulence is seven-year-old Sam (Ryder Allen), a boy with a penchant for fairy wings and high-heeled boots, who likes nothing more than styling Vivian’s hair and holding dolls’ tea-parties with his best friend, Emily (Molly Sue Harrison).

When Shelly takes off and (spoiler alert) Vivian dies, Palmer finds himself tasked with looking after Sam. Initially reluctant, he tries to refuse, but this is a small town, and his old pal Coles (Jesse Boyd) – now the local cop – tells him Shelly does this all the time and she’ll soon be back, and begs him not to abandon Sam to ‘the system.’ Of course, Palmer knows only too well what state institutions can do to the soul, so he shoulders the burden and takes the boy on.

They don’t have much in common, but they each have a lot to learn, and that’s the point. It’s to director Fisher Stevens’ credit that this never seems saccharine. And there’s some real nuance in the script too: yes, Sam is bullied at school for being ‘different,’ but writer Cheryl Guerriero makes him so much more than a victim. His sense of self never wavers in the face of his tormentors, and he has allies as well as enemies. Shelly might not be a contender for mother-of-the-year, but she has given her son the confidence to be proud of who he is.

Alisha Wainwright plays Maggie, Sam’s sympathetic teacher and Palmer’s new lover. They make a delightful trio, a model pseudo-family, all kindness and acceptance, and all three flourish in the others’ care. But their idyll is temporary, and Shelly is bound to return to claim her son…

Of course, none of this is groundbreaking: it’s a well-trodden tale of redemption, and not a particularly subtle one. But it’s all done with such generosity of spirit, and with such understated, believable performances, that it belies its own simplicity.

This really is a lovely film.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

St Maud

03/02/21

Amazon Prime Video

St Maud is another movie that got away. Released just before cinemas across the country closed their doors, we’ve been literally counting the days to its release on streaming networks. Finally, it’s available and though, inevitably, some of its visceral power must be diluted by viewing it on a smaller screen, it’s nonetheless an assured and confident debut from writer/director Rose Glass.

In a taut one hour, twenty-four minutes, the film manages to keep me guessing right up to the final shocking frame: is Maud simply deluded? Or is there something more to the series of religious ‘visions’ that afflict her on a day-to-day basis? The result, though unremittingly bleak, is undeniably compelling.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a former nurse, banished from the hospital where she formally worked for reasons that are only hinted at. We soon learn that ‘Maud’ isn’t even her real name, which explains how she comes to be working in the private sector, caring for the tragic Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) in her home. Amanda is a former dancer and choreographer, a leading light of the theatrical world, now gradually succumbing to the ravages of cancer of the spine, unable to stand, let alone perform a pirouette.

At first, Maud seems like the perfect carer – polite, attentive and gentle – but, as she and Amanda become closer, so Maud is increasingly convinced that Amanda is transgressing God’s laws. Initially, this merely encourages Maud to overstep the mark as a carer, meddling in Amanda’s personal life – but it’s only a matter of time before the mounting conflict results in tragedy.

Set in a sleazy, rain-splashed Scarborough, Glass takes every opportunity to depict the seaside resort as some kind of hell on earth, employing skewed perspectives, even turning the camera lens upside down at key moments in the narrative. The extended sequence where Maud attempts to go out for a ‘night on the town’ is unlikely to put the place on the tourist maps. Clark is phenomenal in the lead role, depicting Maud as an uneasy mixture of smiling geniality and twisted anxiety. I never know which aspect is going to emerge at any given moment, and it’s this uncertainty that keeps me on the edge of my seat throughout.

For Rose Glass, the timing has been disastrous, but it’s interesting to note that, despite everything, St Maud managed to find its way onto many critics’ top-ten films for 2020.’ I’m late to the game but have to agree: this is an astonishing first flight for a director. I look forward to seeing where she goes next.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Dig

30/01/21

Netflix

The Dig sounds fairly unpromising on paper. It’s based around the excavation of the Sutton Hoo horde – one of the most significant discoveries in British archeological history – and, since we know the eventual outcome of the tale before a single sod of earth has been lifted, it’s all too easy to surmise that this will be a story bereft of any suspense. However, as written by Moira Buffini (based on a novel by John Preston), and directed by Simon Stone, this is nonetheless a compelling story that never fails to hold the attention and, in one particular sequence, will have you holding your breath and crossing your fingers.

It’s 1939 and Great Britain is hurtling irrevocably towards World War 2. Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has long wanted to explore three ancient burial mounds in one of her fields and, to this end, she decides to hire local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). Brown has years of practical experience in excavation, but not much in the way of qualifications. However, once the little matter of payment has been finalised, he sets to with gusto.

When the excavation begins to yield some promising results, the glowering, overbearing Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is dispatched by the British Museum to stake their claim on the gradually emerging treasures. Soon, more hands are called to help out with the donkey work. These include Peggy Piggot (Lily James), recently betrothed to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who, it turns out, isn’t ideal husband material – and Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), fills in some time while waiting to take up his commission with the RAF. The various characters make up a volatile mixture, and there is an added shot of tragedy when Edith discovers that time is running out in more ways than one…

This is a handsomely-mounted production – the English countryside, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, has rarely looked more sumptuous – and Mulligan and Fiennes make a memorable on-screen partnership, she playing her vulnerability for all its worth, and he portraying the kind of stoic, no-nonsense personality that seems to go hand-in-hand with the era. There’s no actual romance between them – Brown is married to the equally steadfast May (Monica Dolan) – yet Pretty and Brown eventually establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Brown does forge a friendship with Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Baines), built around a mutual interest in star gazing, and the scenes where he counsels the troubled boy are beautifully handled.

Those looking for something to transcend the current glum realities of life, could do a lot worse than clicking the Netflix button, but be warned, there’s a poignant conclusion here that may have some of you reaching for the tissues.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

A Gambler’s Guide to Dying

26/01/21

Traverse Online

We’re a little late to this one, which is a shame because A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a charming and engaging monologue, a delightful way to fill a spare hour. It’s the story of the narrator’s grandfather, a hardbitten Glaswegian, who discovers a love for betting on a long shot, even when such an approach incurs the wrath of the drinkers in his local bar.

Undeterred, Granddad continues with his mission, placing an accumulator bet every day, never spending any of his winnings, and always keeping an eye on the potential millions he might one day be able to leave for his family. When he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he even spots an opportunity to turn that into a lucrative betting proposition.

Can he somehow outlive the remaining time that his doctors have predicted for him?

This could so easily have been mawkish and overly sentimental, but McNair’s approach is too skilful to allow that to happen. The marvel here is that the narrator manages to take on several roles in this story, never relying on costume changes or make-up, but just adding subtle vocal inflexions to identify each character. Gareth Nicholls’ and Siri Rødnes’s simple but effective direction develops this, positioning the camera to establish who is who, so that I’m never in any doubt as to which of them is speaking at any given moment, even when it’s a quick-fire exchange of words between grandfather and grandson.

I also love that McNair steadfastly refuses to offer a straightforward happy ending to his tale, yet somehow manages to use the gut-punch of failure to give his story a realistic, yet satisfying conclusion. The tragedy here is that this little gem will only be available to stream for one more day.

Do try to catch it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney