The Dead Don’t Die

13/07/19

Jim Jarmusch’s mumblecore zombie movie, The Dead Don’t Die (or Dawn of the Deadpan, as I like to think of it) is typically understated, the somnolent residents of Centreville downplaying the impending apocalypse even as it overwhelms them.

Bill Murray is the small town’s chief cop, Cliff Robertson, cheerfully supported by officers Ronnie and Mindy (Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny respectively). They’re an easy-going trio without much to tax them, apart from occasionally rebuking Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) for stealing Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi)’s hens.

True, strange things are certainly afoot: fracking has caused the earth to tilt on its access, blurring the lines between day and night; phones don’t work and TVs stutter; pets are missing all over town. But no one pays these things much heed – they shake their heads and carry on, with no real concern for where it might all lead…

The metaphor is hardly subtle. We’re all sleepwalking towards our own destruction, tutting and frowning about climate change and the rise of the far right. Jarmusch’s version of middle America (and, by extension, most of the western world) is not far from reality.

The zombies here (including, marvellously, Iggy Pop) are never really frightening. They’re not too dissimilar from the townsfolk they want to eat: shuffling in pursuit of banal and transient aims. “Wifi!” they moan, “Sweets! Chardonnay! Coffee!” They want what we want, and they move among us – and we won’t know until too late just how dangerous they (we) are. Sure, they’re bloody and hungry and the images are visceral, but it’s all very low-key and unremarked upon. The townsfolk never think to band together, to coordinate a response against their own demise. (Like I said, it’s not subtle.)

Having read several lacklustre reviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this. But I find myself really enjoying it – even the inconsistent post-modernism – largely because of its lugubrious tone. Sure, there are issues: Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton)’s story arc certainly jumps the shark (although Swinton is the luminous enigma you’d expect her to be) and the strand concerning three sweet inmates at the local juvenile detention centre leaves them, well… stranded. But it’s beautifully acted throughout, and – I think – a great addition to the zombie pantheon.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

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The Man Who Fell to Earth

14/07/19

Nicolas Roeg’s challenging – and in many ways groundbreaking – feature first hit cinema screens in 1976, the year before Star Wars came along and changed the intergalactic movie game forever. The Man Who Fell to Earth came hard on the heels of three other Roeg successes: Performance, Walkabout and (best of all) Don’t Look Now, all of which demonstrated the director’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking and his absolute refusal to tell any story in a straightforward manner. Now back on limited release, it’s interesting to reasess TMWFTE on the big screen. I saw it in 1976 and haven’t watched it since. I remember being blown away by it at the time.

David Bowie plays space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton, who plummets down into the wilds of New Mexico, with a bunch of gold rings to pawn for ready money and with a bundle of  gamechanging patents in his back pocket. (Disposable cameras anyone? Tiny stero sytems? Nah, that’ll never take off.) Pretty soon, he’s a reclusive Howard Hughes type, living in New York, and using lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) as the frontman for his various multi-million dollar business enterprises. Philandering university lecturer Nathan Bryce (the recently departed Rip Torn) notices the ripples that Thomas is making and soon ends up as an employee of the company.

On a trip back to New Mexico, however, Thomas falls in with ditsy chambermaid, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and the two of them quickly become an item. She introduces Thomas to the dubious joys of alcohol and, from there, he begins to take on the various shortcomings that humanity has to offer. As the film progresses, they exert an increasingly powerful hold on him, until he is finally subsumed by them.

It’s a dazzling trip, though some of the elements – viewed through a contemporary lens – have not aged particularly well. There’s an over-preponderance of long (and extremely graphic) sex scenes, some of which feel decidedly prurient – and the state-of-the-art makeup effects now – inevitably – look somewhat shonky. (The conceit here is that Bowie’s character stays the same age, while the human protagonists around him age dramatically.) But there’s little doubt about the power and grace of Bowie’s performance, even if it has to be said that he’s clearly portraying a character who is only one step removed from his own persona at the time.

Bowie would never again find a film role that fit him as perfectly as this one and Roeg too was about to see his fortunes decline with the failure of his next feature, Bad Timing, and the films that came after it. But TMWFTE stands as a testimony to an auteur at the height of his powers, a long, twisting kaleidoscope of a film, full of eyepopping images and wry observations on the depravity of mankind.

It’s not what you’d call perfect, but it’s well worth a look.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Spider-Man: Far From Home

12/07/19

I’ve never been the biggest fan of superhero movies, but out of the pantheon of comic book contenders, Spidey was always my go-to. I read the comics as a teenager, even sent fan letters to Stan Lee at The Bullpen – and I was delighted when, in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gave the world a Peter Parker that looked the right age.

If Far From Home isn’t quite the slice of perfection that its predecessor was, it’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable – and somehow, I feel happier with a spandex-clad character who is actually aimed at a teenage audience, rather than grown-ups attempting to relive their time in the sun.

It’s eight years since the events of Avengers: End Game, and the  survivors are coming to terms with the event that they now refer to simply as ‘The Blip.’ Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in dire need of a little R & R and is fully expecting to find some on his upcoming school trip to Europe. He also plans to tell MJ (Zendaya) exactly how he feels about her, preferably in the most romantic location possible. But Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has other ideas. Now that Spider-Man is a member of The Avengers, he argues, it’s time to step up to the plate and fulfil the promise that Tony Stark saw in him.

Peter keeps his head down and goes on holiday with his schoolmates but, on the first leg of the tour – in Venice – the city is attacked by a gigantic beast made of water. This is one of The Elementals, weird creatures that have come from an alternative reality. Luckily, another superhero pops up to handle the situation. He is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), quickly dubbed ‘Mysterio’ by the local press. Beck tells Peter how The Elementals destroyed his family and he and Peter quickly become friends… but as Peter’s school travel from one picture-postcard location to the next, trouble follows them with a vengeance.

For the first third of this movie, I feel that it lacks a credible villain, but then I realise I’ve been sucker-punched and, after that, everything falls satisfyingly into place. Refreshingly, this is, at heart, a teen movie, with all the tropes you’d expect in that genre. There’s funny interplay between Peter and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon); Zendaya’s MJ is a delight, light years away from the usual suppliant females beloved of this genre; and there’s a delightful subplot featuring a budding romance between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau).  Even the climactic CGI punch-up feels fresher and more innovative than most of the competition, with one sequence bordering on the psychedelic.

In the end, I am thoroughly won over and very entertained.

Of course, we all know by now to stay in our seats for the post-credit scenes. There are two on offer here and both of them contain some pretty startling stuff.

‘Nuff said.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Anna

11/07/19

Director Luc Besson has been having a thin time of things lately. His love project, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, was a baffling and expensive flop, so it’s little wonder he’s returned to more familiar ground with Anna, which has been awaiting release for some time. This histrionic spy-thriller has the feel of an 80s bonkbuster about it: patently absurd, but nonetheless rather enjoyable as it galumphs gleefully across the career of the titular hero (Sasha Luss), a young woman forced to become a high level assassin.

When we first meet her, she’s down at heel, addicted to drugs and enduring an abusive relationship with her no-good boyfriend, Piotr (Alexander Petrov), who gets her mixed up in some very bad business. But she is rescued (if that’s the right term) by KGB man, Alex (Luke Evans), who offers her an opportunity to ‘better herself.’ From this point, the film cuts to five years later – and from there to three years earlier; and we continue to switch back and forth in time like an out of control roller coaster. While it’s occasionally hard to keep track of exactly where we are, it means that the story often pulls the rug from under the viewer’s feet, throwing out some real surprises. It’s never dull.

Complications arise when CIA man, Lenny (Cillian Murphy), appears on the scene.  Anna carries on doing her missions, whilst longing for the freedom to walk away from something that has become an absolute chore.

Most of the familiar Luc Besson tropes are here: savage punch-ups with Anna taking on entire armies of black-suited hit men, casual executions in glamorous settings and young women slinking around in high end fashions (Anna’s cover identity has her posing as a model). There’s also a lovely turn from Helen Mirren as Anna’s chainsmoking KGB handler, Olga, having great fun in a show-off role.

Everything builds to a cross and double-cross conclusion and, while this isn’t Besson at his very best, it’ll certainly do until his next effort comes along. Just don’t think about that labyrinthine plot too much. You’ll tie your brain in knots.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Townhouse

09/07/19

Lower Bridge Street, Chester

We’re visiting my parents in North Wales, and have planned a day out in Chester. Mum’s on the case, and has sussed out a TravelZoo (nope, me neither) voucher for a lunchtime meal. It’s at The Townhouse on Lower Bridge Street, right in the middle of town, and she and dad have eaten there before. So far, so good.

The Townhouse is a boutique hotel, and the brasserie – where we’re eating – is in an attractive space leading off a velvet-sofa-ed bar. It’s quite formal, all pale linen and plush upholstered seats, but it’s fresh and inviting, with French windows opening on to a plant-filled patio.

The voucher affords us four three-course meals for just £58. (Some options carry a small supplement, as you’d expect.) My starter of goat’s cheese and honey bonbons is a lovely blend of sweet and salt and, although the quinoa, beetroot and balsamic salad that accompanies it is a little gritty in texture, it tastes divine. Philip has the smoked haddock and spring onion fishcake, which is robustly made, with a real depth of flavour.

My main is oven baked breast of chicken, with giant couscous, charred carrots and courgettes, broccoli, crispy kale and red pepper pesto. It’s delicious: the chicken is beautifully cooked, and the couscous concoction is bursting with flavour. The only mis-step – and it is a serious mis-step – is the crispy kale, which dissolves into an unpleasant pool of oil as soon as I crunch down on it. Urgh. I push what’s left to the side and enjoy the rest of the dish.

Philip has the carved Welsh lamb rump, which carries a £4 supplement. It’s served with a mixed bean cassoulet, fondant potatoes, minted garden peas and a sticky rosemary jus. The meat is succulent, and he’s especially impressed with the savoury taste of the cassoulet.

To finish, Philip has the sticky toffee pudding, which comes with butterscotch sauce and Cheshire Farm vanilla ice cream. It’s a decent example of the classic pud, but maybe not as moist and decadent as it might be. My trio of flavoured crème brûlée is fantastic though, with strawberry and chocolate alongside the classic vanilla. It’s gloriously, lip-smackingly good, and ought to appear on more menus.

We have a glass of wine each (a serviceable sauvignon blanc), and coffee to finish; all in, the extras come to £26. An affordable treat in a central location – you can bet we’ll be back before too long.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Midsommar

05/07/19

Rising star Ari Aster’s second movie, Midsommar, is a bucolic horror, a direct descendant of The Wicker Man. Starring Florence Pugh as the troubled Dani, it upends as many horror tropes as it embraces, the excesses building gleefully to a riotous, high-pitched finale.

The film opens with Dani worrying about her sister and pestering her reluctant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for reassurance. He’s out with his flatmates: Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), frustrated at being disturbed. He wants out of the relationship, he tells his friends, but he’s dithering, loathe to make a decision and act on it.

But then Dani’s parents die suddenly and he can’t ditch her; how can he? She’s clingy and needy, can’t be left alone. Christian feels trapped, compelled to invite her along on the trip he and his pals have planned, to visit the remote commune in Sweden where Pelle grew up, and take part in their midsummer festivities.

The tension here is nicely drawn: Christian caught in the middle between his girlfriend and his friends. Mark does not want Dani there and she is too fragile to let his animosity wash over her. The setup is promising.

From the dingy, gloomy hues of the opening reel, we are suddenly transported to the gloriously colourful and sunlit idyll of Pelle’s home with the Härga people. This is a daytime horror, no murky shadows where monsters lurk: these fiends are hiding in plain sight. Because, of course, not all is as it seems…

This is not a perfect film. There are some clear issues. Christian in particular is underwritten; his behaviour is inconsistent and lacking credible motivation. What we do know (he’s too weak to walk away from a failing relationship; he will deny a friendship, Judas-like) makes him unsympathetic, so it’s hard to care what happens to him. And then there’s Will Poulter. Mark starts off well enough, adding an interesting dynamic to the friendship group. But, once they arrive in Sweden, he seems to slowly fade from the film, a woeful underuse of such a fine actor. Perhaps, though, it’s the unthinking adherence to problematic clichés that causes me the most concern: exoticising the only disabled character; positioning naked elderly women as grotesques; suggesting mental illness is synonymous with violence and murderous intent.

Despite these problems, Midsommar is largely successful, not least for its bravura. Pugh is as compelling as ever, a real physical presence, dominating the screen. And there are some assured flourishes – a sequence where the protagonists’ car seems to quite literally start running upside-down along an inverted highway clearly shows Aster’s directorial chops. The mounting sense of dread is expertly manipulated, with even the silliest scenes adding a genuine disquiet. The fact that it all takes place in this sun-dappled pastoral hideaway only serves to highlight the brutality.

It’s worth noting too that all the horror here is human: we don’t need the supernatural; we are quite evil enough.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Robert the Bruce

02/07/19

The story of Robert the Bruce recently had a creditable outing on Netflix in Outlaw King, with Chris Pine taking on the titular role, and now – after first portraying the rebel leader in Braveheart (1995) – Angus MacFadyen finally brings us his sequel to that box office smash. But while the two earlier films were epic in scale, Robert the Bruce, co-written by MacFadyen and directed by Richard Grey, tells a story on a much more intimate scale.

After fighting (and repeatedly losing) for many years, and with a harsh winter descending on his ragged army, Robert is disillusioned enough to dismess his men and head off into the wilds to consider his options. The fact that there is a sizable reward on his head motivates several of his former comrades to go after him, bent on claiming the money. Seriously wounded in a skirmish, Robert staggers into a remote cave, where he spots the infamous spider at work – and from there, he wanders close to the home of Morag (Anna Hutchison) and her extended family.

Despite the obvious dangers of helping an outlaw, Morag takes him in and heals his wounds. She is a widow, whose husband died fighting for the Scottish cause. His brother, Brandubh (Zack McGowen), however, is the local sheriff. He has his eyes both on Morag and the reward money…

Set during a convincingly frozen winter, the film flirts with the concept of legend, unfolding some of the events as a story told by Morag to her young son, Scot (Gabriel Bateman). The narrative doesn’t always hang convincingly together: Brandubh manages to look like the most gullible man who ever lived, and it would have been useful to see some of the depravations of the ruling English, just to remind us why the Scottish chose to fight their oppressors so defiantly. But there are definite compensations here, in a series of appealing performances and the sometimes ravishing location photography, much of it shot in Montana, but with key sequences familiar from our recent trip to the Isle of Skye.

And while the lack of pitched battles may have been forced by a tight budget, it’s actually refreshing to watch, for once, a historial movie that doesn’t descend into one endless brawl.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney