The Trial of the Chicago 7

16/10/20

Netflix

Those people who despair about the current state of the judicial system in America should take a long, hard look at The Trial of the Chicago 7 – if only to remind themselves that it was just as rotten in the late 60s.

The titular trial is, of course, one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in relatively recent history, and here it is in all its shocking detail. Presented as fiction, this would inevitably raise eyebrows. The fact that it’s all true only intensifies the sense of shame the story generates. This is a damning narrative in the truest sense of the word.

It’s the story of a bunch of radicals who, in 1968, organised a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. On the night of the protest, a large contingent of the protesters were cornered by the police and subjected to a brutal physical assault. Many of the officers removed their identification before striking out with their batons.

The upshot should surely have been that the Chicago police were the ones on trial, but no such luck. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and four of their friends find themselves up before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a rampant hardliner who clearly deems them guilty on the length of their hair alone. Their crime? Hard to say, really. Obstructing police batons with their faces?

Just to complicate matters, Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is on trial alongside them, for no apparent reason other than he happened to be in Chicago on the same night. He has no legal representation in the court and, when he tries to speak for himself, he’s escorted outside, beaten, shackled and brought back in wearing a gag.

Think about that for a moment…

Writer/Director Aaron Sorkin has been working on this film for several years and it’s clearly a passion project. At first glance, some of the casting seems questionable but, as it turns out, Redmayne is perfectly convincing as Hayden, and Baron Cohen – hardly the go-to person for a credible acting performance – really captures the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, delivering what just might be his best film performance so far.

There are plenty of other sterling actors in smaller roles – Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton to name but three – and the era is reproduced in almost forensic detail. It’s evident that Sorkin has designed this as a salutary lesson, a plea for the USA to ditch the kind of values exhibited here.

Some of that will be decided in the upcoming Presidential election but, in the meantime, here’s a chilling testament to the iniquities of the law and a stark warning of what happens when the judiciary isn’t held to proper account.

Hard-hitting stuff.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

Eternal Beauty

09/10/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Films that tackle the subject of mental illness are difficult to get right and the ones that do are few and far between. Eternal Beauty, written and directed by Craig Roberts, is more successful than most at capturing the confused and sometimes terrifying world of a schizophrenic.

It does seem odd, though, that a film set in South Wales and financed by the Welsh Film Board should feature such a paucity of Welsh actors in its cast. Robert Pugh, the only cast member with a noticeably Welsh accent, ironically spends the entire film in almost total silence.

Go figure.

Sally Hawkins is Jane, who, since being left at the altar by her fiancé many years ago, has increasingly drifted into a chaotic world of delusion, much to the bewilderment of her family. (In flashbacks, she’s played by Morfydd Clark, who is great, although she looks nothing like Hawkins.) Jane dwells in a place where ‘reality’ is in very short supply and where the aforementioned fiancé phones her at random times throughout the day and night, to whisper sweet nothings down the line.

Jane’s singularly unsympathetic mother, Vivian (Penelope Wilton) treats her condition with utter disdain, while her father, Dennis (Pugh), can’t even seem to voice an opinion. Jane’s two sisters, the likeable Alice (Alice Lowe) and the frankly unpleasant Nicola (Billie Piper), each deal with her condition in their own way.

Jane’s fragile existence receives a sudden boost when she reconnects with a friend from childhood. Mike (David Thewlis) styles himself as a musician – though the brief performance we’re treated to suggests that this may not be his true forte. However, his sparky presence revitalises Jane and it begins to look as though he may be just the man to lead her out of the dark labyrinth in which she’s become ensnared. But this is no fairy tale…

As ever, Hawkins submits a brilliantly nuanced performance in the lead role and she’s ably supported by a whole host of excellent performers. Kit Fraser’s cinematography cleverly uses colour palettes to define the different characters and there’s a suitably quirky soundtrack of vintage songs to supplement the action. Niggles aside, Eternal Beauty is well worth a watch, if only to marvel at Hawkins’ ability to take the most demanding roles in her stride – and to wonder how Roberts has somehow managed to make this bleak tale curiously life-affirming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Enola Holmes

28/09/20

Netflix

Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? Enola Holmes is an invention of American author Nancy Springer. The character does not appear in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Furthermore, news that the Conan Doyle estate is in the process of suing Netflix for having the temerity to feature a ‘likeable’ version of the great detective strikes me as faintly absurd. Still, here is the aforementioned Enola, as portrayed by the immensely likeable Millie Bobby Brown, (better known as ’11’ in Stranger Things) in the first of what is intended to be a series of six films – and you know what? It’s really rather good.

Enola is the estranged little sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), though she hasn’t seen either of them since she was a toddler. Brought up by her reclusive mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) she’s been home-schooled in a whole series of unusual subjects, all designed to develop her mind and (importantly) her martial arts skills.

When Eudoria suddenly disappears without explanation, Enola’s care passes to her humourless guardian, Mycroft, who decides to put her in a finishing school run by the dreaded Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw being suitably repellent). But instead, Enola opts to go in search of her mother, using a series of disguises and the kind of detection skills that Sherlock would be proud of. Along the way, she encounters another runaway, Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) and it isn’t long before sparks begin to fly between them. But first, there’s a complicated mystery in need of unravelling…

Handsomely mounted and featuring a whole battalion of revered character actors, there’s much here to enjoy, though it really is Millie Bobby Brown who keeps everything bubbling along, maintaining a jovial conversation with the audience as she goes. This is witty, inventive and – unusually for a Holmes project – has a nicely handled feminist subtext at its heart.

Legal actions not withstanding, there’s every reason to believe that Enola Holmes could go on to be an engaging series, but – should it turn out to be a standalone – it’s still an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Devil All the Time

23/09/20

Netflix

Imagine the vibrant Americana of the Coen Brothers, twisted into a seething vat of venomous corruption and you’ll pretty much have the measure of The Devil All the Time. Directed and co-written by Antonio Campos and based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who serves as our narrator), this is a multi-layered, labyrinthine slow-burner of a film, where a whole string of characters are linked by a series of weird coincidences. In Pollock’s bleak world view, the blame for most of the evil that plagues humanity can be laid squarely at the door of organised religion.

The central character, Arvon Russell (Tom Holland), is one of the few sympathetic human beings in this narrative, and even he is someone given to Old Testament levels of brutality towards anyone who wrongs his much-loved step sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvon’s violent tendencies stem from the treatment he received from his God-fearing Dad, Willard (Bill Skarsgard), who very much believed in the eye-for-an-eye approach and whose treatment of the family pet is particularly hard to stomach. Lassie Come Home, this really isn’t.  

Elsewhere, we encounter the Reverend Preston Teagarden (Robert Pattinson), a sleazy preacher with a predilection for seducing young girls: crooked cop Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) who’ll do whatever is necessary to further his ambitions, and a particularly vile couple, played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, who get their kicks from picking up young male hitchhikers…

On paper, it all sounds rather relentless but, unfolded as it is in a slow, measured narrative, it’s a surprisingly powerful brew. As Arvon is led inexorably deeper and deeper along the path to retribution, I find myself gripped right up to the final credits. It helps that a whole menagerie of talented actors submit nuanced performances here, particularly Holland who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s a lot more to him than slinging webs.

This may not be to everybody’s taste. As a vision of the United States, there’s little here resembling any kind of hope for the country’s collective soul. Indeed, it is a tale so excoriating, so morally bankrupt, that you can only feel a nagging worry for the society that spawned it. 

The Devil All the Time is a Netflix original, ready to watch whenever you have the time, or the nerve, to take it on.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

I’m Thinking of Ending it All

14/09/20

Charlie Kaufman’s reputation for weirdness precedes him, but to my mind, he can be  inconsistent: for every Anomalisa or Being John Malkovich, there’s an Adaptation or a Synochade, New York lurking in the wings, films that – despite flashes of genuine brilliance – have a tendency to lapse into events that are just plain puzzling. And it’s somewhere in this hinterland that Kaufman’s latest offering belongs. 

If the title sounds ominous, don’t be misled. Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is simply thinking of ending her relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons) after six weeks of going out with him. (I can’t say I blame her: he’s a cheerless oaf, much given to scowling furiously.) Unfortunately, she has agreed to accompany him on her first visit to meet his parents, an assignation that requires a long, long drive through the falling snow. There follows a seemingly endless sequence where the two of them drive and talk and then Young Woman treats Jake to an impromptu performance of her latest poem, which goes on way, WAY longer than it needs to. I suspect this is the point, but it’s not a promising introduction to proceedings.

Then, the couple arrive at their destination, where Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis) are waiting to meet them. The resulting visit is so deliciously deranged that the film is suddenly eminently watchable – indeed, if the rest of it were up to this standard, we’d be talking a lot more stars. The two parents appear to be different ages every time we see them, and there are lots of parenthood issues as well as something very creepy lurking in the cellar…

But, all too soon, the protagonists are back in the car and heading homeward through the snow, where Young Woman is delivering (at length) her opinion of a much revered John Cassavetes film. This feels suspiciously like an authorial criticism, and the head of steam built up by our time spent with Jake’s parents promptly evaporates. Just as I’m thinking of ending I’m Thinking of Ending It All, Young Woman and Jake stop off at the World’s creepiest ice cream parlour, and suddenly the film is riveting all over again… 

I’ve used this analogy before but this is a real curate’s egg of a film – good in parts, sometimes much too good to be ignored – but, while the destinations featured herein are really rewarding, the seemingly interminable journeys between them are frankly on the dull side.

The film is right there on Netflix, ready to view at the touch of a button, but be warned, your patience may be tested.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Pinocchio

13/09/20

Pinocchio has long been a bit of a touchstone story for me. I saw the Disney version when I was a kid and was deliciously terrified by it – indeed, I still consider it to be Walt’s masterpiece. My own novel, Mr Sparks, was an unashamed riff on Carlo Collodi’s original story and, like many, I’m eagerly awaiting Guillermo del Toro’s live action version of the tale, though it’s anybody’s guess when that might arrive. In the meantime, here’s Matteo Garrone’s interpretation, and it’s certainly arresting enough to keep me happy while I’m waiting for Guillermo to get his act together. 

Garrone’s Pinocchio is suitably dark and makes no bones about the poverty afflicting most of the characters. In this downbeat version of the story, Geppeto (Roberto Benigni) has been reduced to begging for scraps of food and, when he asks a local carpenter for an off-cut of wood, so he can make himself the son he’s never had, he’s fobbed off with a log that seems unable to stay in one place for more than two minutes.

Soon enough, Geppetto has crafted the wood into Pinocchio (Federico Lelapi), who – like his progenitor – doesn’t seem happy to sit around and do what’s expected of him. He’s soon racing recklessly off across the countryside, where he encounters Gatto (Rocco Papaleo) and Volpe (Massino Cecchari), two conniving rapscallions, who set about swindling the boy out of the only bit of money he has.

And of course, there’s the Blue Fairy, played by Alida Baldari Calabria in her youth and Marine Vacth in her older incarnation.

Sticking fairly close to Collodi’s original, Garrone offers a darkly magical tale, which unfolds at a leisurely pace, blessed with the handsome cinematography of Nicolai Bruel – but parents take heed, the film’s PG certificate isn’t just there for fun and there are some scenes that may upset younger viewers, particularly a lengthy sequence where the wooden boy is hanged. But older kids and their parents will have a good time.

There’s no CGI in evidence, but the ingenious mechanical effects are superbly done, especially the delightful invention of a woman who is essentially a giant snail, leaving a slippery trail in her wake. The film has been dubbed into English, but I won’t hold that against it. With such lean pickings on offer at the cinema, this is certainly one worth catching.

And best of all, there’s not a jolly singalong in sight.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Les Miserables

08/09/20

This is not, as you might reasonably have expected, a musical featuring people in period costume running around Paris and warbling endlessly about the French revolution. This Palme D’or Jury winner is a gritty, contemporary drama, set in Montfermeil where Victor Hugo penned his most famous novel. It’s now been transformed into an edgy, crime-ridden neighbourhood where drugs and prostitution are rife and where different cultures struggle for supremacy.

New cop on the block, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) finds himself teamed with veteran twosome, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and his first day on the job becomes a brutal schooling in the art of bending the rules. Chris and Gwada have established their own way of doing things and it’s made very clear from the get-go, that Stéphane is expected to fall into line. But when hard-knock kid Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from a travelling circus, he unwittingly sparks off a whole series of events that threaten to erupt into violence on a major scale.

Writer/director Ladj Ly rarely puts a foot wrong here. He’s careful to ensure that nobody is allowed to become a total villain, just as surely as nobody is picked out as a hero. The entire cast of Les Miserables exist somewhere in a twilight hinterland somewhere in between the two. These are people trying to keep their heads above water in a hard-bitten world that takes no prisoners; and when the young black gangs that haunt the area feel compelled to rise up in a revolution of their own, it’s hard not to sympathise with their plight. They represent a strata of society that are being punished for just daring to exist.

As Ly steadily cranks up the heat beneath his characters, so the tension rises and the story exert an increasingly powerful grip, until it all explodes into a cataclysmic – and brilliantly judged – crescendo.

This is incendiary stuff that will have you gripped from start to finish.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Babyteeth

02/09/20

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is sixteen years old and going through a rough time. Already alienated from her schoolmates, struggling to co-exist with her concert-pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis) and her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s also trying to keep things together as a terminal illness exerts an increasingly powerful grip upon her.

So when she falls head-over-heels for local tearaway, Moses (Toby Wallace), a free-living, drug-abusing twenty-something, her parents are far from delighted at his unexpected appearance in their suburban home – particularly when his urgent need for drug money prompts him to try and rob the place. But Moses is Milla’s first romantic crush and he’s almost certain to be her last… so Anna and Henry realise they are going to have to let her take the lead on this.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Babyteeth is its steadfast refusal to allow any of the usual ‘brave victim’ clichés to step into the mix. Indeed, for quite some time, Milla’s cancer is barely mentioned, so when it finally does step into the frame, it delivers something of a gut punch.

Scanlen, last seen as the least interesting character in Little Women, is a revelation here, quietly dominating the screen with her sparky presence. Wallace too does a fabulous job of making the initially deeply unlikable Moses into a fully formed character, redeemed both by Milla’s love for him and by her parents’ touching decision to allow him into the family fold. This could have been extremely mawkish, but is so adeptly handled that it really isn’t. Davis and Mendelsohn too submit nuanced performances that make them so much more than just supporting players. We share their anxieties, their frustrations and their unswerving devotion to the daughter they love.

Babyteeth marks the assured directorial debut of actor Shannon Murphy, and she’s aided and abetted by Rita Kalnejais’s inventive screenplay, the story punctuated by a series of quirky chapter headings, giving this the feel of a superior teen novel.

The only tragedy is one of timing. There are only a handful of people at the afternoon screening we attend and that’s a shame. In safer times, I have no doubt, this would be pulling in decent crowds and deservedly so. It’s an affecting story – and expertly told.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Removed

29/09/20

Traverse Theatre Online

Written by Fionnuala Kennedy, originally performed at The Brian Friel Theatre in Belfast and subsequently shown at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Removed is based on a series of interviews the playwright conducted with young people in care. The result is this searing monologue, poignantly performed by Conor O’Donnell as Adam.

Adam’s story is sadly an all too familiar one. When his alcoholic mother is unable to provide the right level of care for Adam and his younger brother, the boys find themselves consigned to the tender mercies of a whole series of foster parents and unsuitable homes. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the powerful bond between them is being eroded and the two of them are destined to be separated. Adam’s attempts to maintain the relationship all come to naught.

O’Donnell’s disarming charm is deceptive; behind that confident smile we are allowed glimpses of the pain that Adam has suffered over the years – the humiliation and regret. This is a powerful narrative that will occasionally push viewers to the edge of tears. The simple but effective production design by Conan McIvor ensures that this never feels like ‘just another worthy monologue.’

The systematic failings of the care system are vividly displayed here along with its many contradictions. Of course children cannot be left with parents who are incapable of looking after them, but the alternatives need to be far better than those currently offered. As Adam details the many ordeals he is obliged to face on a daily basis, his story kindles a powerful sense of outrage. Is this really the best solution that society can offer to people like him? Is this honestly a suitable response from a so-called civilised society?

Removed is a truly affecting drama that deserves to reach the widest possible audience. It’s available to watch online, right now.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Declan

26/08/20

Traverse Theatre Online

First seen by B&B  at The Traverse Theatre in June 2018, Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley scored a five star review from us and, some time thereafter, went on to a run of acclaimed performances at London’s Soho Theatre.

Now, lockdown has spawned a companion piece, once again written by Hurley and starring Lorn Macdonald, who, in this pithy, foul-mouthed monologue, offers the same basic story from a different perspective, that of the antagonist. 

Like so many lockdown projects, this thirty minute film has necessitated an inventive approach from the production team in order to make it so much more than just a static talking head scenario – and they’ve delivered big time. There are gorgeous animated cartoon inserts by Nisan Yetkin in the style of Declan’s distinctive artwork, and a series of exterior scenes shot in some memorable Edinburgh locations. 

Furthermore, there are scenes featuring ‘Declan’ (Angus Taylor), who we understand is playing the character in the fictionalised account of his story as written by Libby, the woman the other Declan meets on Salisbury Crags, who befriends him and then ‘steals his life.’

 As the play proceeds, we become increasingly unsure which of the two men is actually real. ‘Fuckin’ meta,’ as Declan is so fond of saying. (Especially, as – of course – they’re both actors and ‘Declan’ is as much of a construct as he ever was…)

This is a striking piece of filmed theatre. I’m not certain that a knowledge of the original play is absolutely essential to the enjoyment of it, but I think it helps. Having seen and loved Mouthpiece, I can’t unknow it  (which is quite meta all by itself). But one thing’s for sure, you certainly won’t be bored by this. McDonald and Taylor are clearly actors to watch out for in the future and Hurley too, is a major talent (as anyone who saw his underrated feature film Beats will surely attest). 

Short, punchy and inventive, Declan is well worth your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney