Month: October 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

30/10/17

Hold the front page! Adam Sandler has made a good film! No, seriously, I’m not making this up. He’s one of the featured performers in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and he’s pretty damned good in it.

Of course, those who know these things will already be aware that, in 2002, he made a film called Punch Drunk Love directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he was pretty good in that too. (At a push, I’d even argue that The Wedding Singer is a decent movie.) But even his most avid fans will have to admit that such occurrences are pretty rare and that most of his considerable cinematic output is either to be avoided like the plague or to be viewed in that ‘so bad its good’ ironic sort of way.

Here, Sandler plays Danny, the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a once acclaimed sculptor who, through a combination of bad luck and bad business decisions, now finds himself coasting on his previous successes, doomed to watch helplessly as other, less talented (at least in his estimation) artists, receive all the adulation that he thinks is his by right. Because of Harold’s single-minded determination to bolster his own ego, Danny has never really enjoyed anything approaching a career (he’s a failed musician), but has pretty much devoted his life to helping his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), achieve her ambitions to become a film maker.

Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is also terribly unfulfilled, the kind of character who drifts along through life going wherever destiny takes her and it’s clear that she too has suffered because of her father’s emotional distance. Harold is now bumbling through a marriage (his fourth) to the alcoholic Maureen (Emma Thompson), but, when an unexpected illness threatens to carry him off, Danny and Jean’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), comes to visit. Matthew is a highly-motivated and very successful businessman, who is trying to sort out his father’s financial straits but, when the three offspring come together for the first time in years, old resentments soon come bubbling to the surface…

This is the kind of territory Baumbach excels at and he has an absolute field day here. The story is told in episodes, each one jumping forward a little in time and there’s a delightful recurring motif of Danny losing his temper and the camera cutting away as if to censor his outbursts. Hoffman is excellent as the highly manipulative Harold and Stiller delivers a nice performance as a man being torn between caring for his father and punching him on the nose. There’s even a delightful cameo from Sigourney Weaver as… well, Sigourney Weaver. If you are expecting to see this at the cinema anytime soon, don’t be misled. This is another Netflix Original, ready for viewing at any time by its customers. However much traditional filmgoers may resent this phenomenon, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. Netflix has recently announced that they will be ramping up their production slate – and, as long as they continue to make quality films like this one, I say good luck to them.

Tune in and check this out – if only for the novelty of seeing an Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t make you reach of the ‘off’ switch.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Breathe

28/10/17

Breathe is the true story of a man’s quest to manage a cruel and debilitating illness with the help and devotion of his friends and family. It’s the kind of thing that used to be dubbed ‘Oscar bait’ and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it nominated for a gong or two somewhere down the road. It’s also an unusual choice for actor Andy Serkis’s directorial debut (okay, so it’s not really his debut. There’s an animated version of Jungle Book waiting in the wings, its release date pushed back a year because Jon Favreau got there first – but that, as they say, is another story). Breathe is compelling stuff, sensitively directed and beautifully acted by the cast.

The story begins in England in the 1950s, where Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) at a village cricket match and promptly falls head over heels in love with her. Almost within minutes, it seems, the two of them are inseparable and Robin has whisked Diana off to Kenya, where he works as a ‘tea broker.’ (Don’t ask.) It’s all terribly romantic and terribly British and, when Diana announces that she is pregnant, it looks as though their future together is assured. But then, without warning, Robin is struck down by polio and overnight finds himself paralysed, able only to move his facial muscles and unable to breathe without the use of a ventilator. Diana manages to get him back to a hospital in England but Robin quickly sinks into depression. In the 1950s, polio sufferers were expected to live out the rest of their days in hospital, but Diana knows that what Robin wants more than anything else is a chance to escape…

There’s no denying that it’s a remarkable story. Serkis first came to it when he worked with the couple’s son, Jonathan, who is these days a film producer (he’s produced this film, in fact). Garfield does an incredible job, reduced as he is for the most part, to acting only with his face, and Foy is also impressive as the resourceful Diana (though curiously, despite the fact that Robin ages convincingly throughout the film, she seems to look exactly the same in every scene). There’s splendid support from Tom Hollander, in a dual role as Diana’s twin brothers, and from Stephen Mangan as the Doctor who takes up Robin’s cause to help free hundreds of disabled patients from their hospital incarceration. It would take a stern soul indeed not to feel moved to tears at various points in the story and I doubt there’s anyone who won’t experience a genuine thrill of satisfaction when Robin is finally allowed to go home to his wife and child.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s largely due to the trailer. There’s a tendency these days for trailers to show far too much and I feel this is the case with Breathe, where it is essentially a potted version of the entire movie. As a result – accomplished though the film is – there are no real surprises, because I pretty much know exactly what is going to happen. Now, Serkis can hardly be blamed for this… but I really wish that film companies would rein themselves in and leave us a little more to discover for ourselves.

Rant over. Breathe is a charming and affecting film, one that’s well worth seeking out. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, so much the better!) It’s been accused of glossing over some of the more unpleasant details of the illness it deals with, but the scene where the Cavendishes visit a hospital in Germany to see how polio sufferers are treated there doesn’t pull any punches. Sometimes things really do change for the better and Robin Cavendish, who helped affect that change, really does deserve to be recognised for his achievements.

4 stars

Philip Caveney 

Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Party

26/10/17

Shot in stark (and very unforgiving) black and white and confined pretty much to one set, The Party feels like the kind of thing that Mike Leigh has done so brilliantly in the past – indeed, if it resembles one of his works in particular, it certainly has echoes of Abigail’s Party about it. With a sprightly running time of one hour and eleven minutes, this film, written and directed by Sally Potter, canters amiably along but, though it can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome, it never entirely manages to blow you away.

Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) is in the mood to celebrate. She’s just been appointed shadow health minister for the ‘opposition’ and has invited some close friends around for vol au vents and bubbly. They are: her snarky best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), and her partner, the hippy-dippy faith healer, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); feminist university lecturer, Martha (Cherry Jones) ,and her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is currently expecting the patter of er… little triplets; and, definitely the odd one out at this gathering, handsome young property developer, Tom (Cillian Murphy), who explains that his wife, Marianne, will be ‘along later for dessert… or maybe just coffee.’ But it’s not destined to be a happy occasion, because Janet’s morose husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), has something he really needs to get off his chest…

Relentlessly middle class in its themes, the story is mostly about people being unfaithful to one another and, though the performances are generally pretty good, the protagonists cannot seem to help slipping into caricature. April can’t open her mouth without insulting somebody, Martha and Jinny say things in public that any rational person would surely save for later on, and Gottfried is so glib it hurts – but then maybe that’s entirely the point of him. Only Tom seems to have convincing reasons to act the way he does and, indeed, Murphy’s performance is the strongest one here – a man driven by jealousy to do something unspeakable.

Mind you, there’s a conclusion that I really don’t see coming and, all in all, this film makes a decent antidote to the steady diet of superhero movies we’re constantly being offered. I can’t help feeling though, that given the same set up and the same cast of characters, Leigh would have knocked this out of the park.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Snowman

 

25/10/17

Apart from the occasional exception, the name ‘Michael Fassbender’ attached to a film used to stand for a guarantee of some kind of quality (although, since Assassin’s Creed, he doesn’t seem to have put a foot right). Director Tomas Alfredsen did a fabulous job with Let the Right One In, and his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation received a lot of acclaim (even if it did leave me feeling indifferent). Still, put the two men together on an adaptation of one of Jo Nesbo’s hugely successful scandi-noir thrillers and for good measure, bring in Soren Sveistrup (of The Killing) to co-write the screenplay, and you’ve got at least a chance of a winner, right?

Well, no, I’m afraid not. It’s hard to understand quite how The Snowman can have gone so spectacularly wrong, but wrong it undoubtedly goes, a two hour opus that actually feels more like four, so turgid is the storytelling. It doesn’t help that wonderful character actors like Toby Jones and Adrian Dunbar are reduced to standing around spouting bits of clunky exposition whilst looking vaguely embarrassed, or that the plot is so ridiculously convoluted it beggars belief. Most damning of all in a procedural is that the eventual unveiling of a killer seems designed to surprise absolutely no-one, since it’s evident from about half an hour in who that killer is going to be – simply because we are presented with no other possible suspects.

Harry Hole (Fassbender) is a washed-up detective, reduced to drinking himself insensible in children’s playgrounds, after a messy break-up from his partner, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom he still carries a torch for, and his teenage stepson, Oleg (Michael Yates). When new recruit Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) joins Harry’s team, the two of them work together to investigate a series of seemingly random killings, which are always marked by the presence of a snowman at the murder scene. This being Norway in the depths of winter, there are presumably an awful lot of snowmen about – and, when a character surmises that it’s probably falling snow that sets the killer off, it’s hard not to smile. The film occasionally flashes back to the events of nine years earlier in which another alcoholic detective, Rafto (Val Kilmer), stumbles around investigating a similar case – but the film is so clumsily edited, we’re not always sure what is past and what is present. Kilmer, by the way, is positively unreal. I get the impression that his efforts have been edited down to the bare minimum.

What else can I tell you? What might have generated suspense on the printed page doesn’t really work on film. The smiling snowmen featured throughout the story are no doubt intended to come across as sinister, but here they just cause unintended sniggers – and how is that Harry, a hopeless chain-smoking alcoholic, still manages to sport a six-pack that would make Charles Atlas suitably envious?

I hate to be so negative, so let me just say that those snowbound Norwegian landscapes do look ravishing – but frankly, that’s really not enough to recommend this farrago of a film. I doubt that it will please fans of the book and I’m sure it will leave most cinema-goers as baffled as I am.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Real Thing

 

 

25/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is an arch examination of what we mean by ‘truth’ – in love, in life and, of course, in theatre. Despite the linguistic flourishes, however, the central premise – that reality is a shape-shifter, subject to narrative perspective – is pretty bluntly hammered home.

It starts well, with the initial confrontation between husband and wife slowly exposed as fiction: a scene from playwright Henry (Laurence Fox)’s House of Cards. The blurred lines between reality and fantasy are underscored by the revelation that Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson), the cheating wife in the first scene, is – in fact – married to Henry. Her on-stage husband, Max (Adam Jackson-Smith), visits with his real-life wife, Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), and things are further complicated when we discover that Henry and Annie are having an affair. It’s the stuff that farce is made of, and it’s rather nicely done – even if it does at times seem a little too wordy and pleased with itself.

But I’m not sure we need the constant reinforcement of what is, at heart, a straightforward idea. Henry’s Desert Island Discs choices don’t reflect his real musical taste; Charlotte has never been a faithful wife. Brodie (Santino Smith), Annie’s ‘good-cause’, is not the wronged war hero she pretends he is. Most of Billy (Kit Young)’s dialogue is taken from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: he’s rehearsing with Annie; they’re acting the part. It’s all very meta, and interesting to watch, but it does seem to over-complicate an essentially simple premise.

Henry and Charlotte’s daughter, Debbie, is nicely played by Venice Van Someren, but I really don’t understand the character’s function. The role doesn’t add anything to the piece.

The performances are good: the play is dialogue-heavy, but the actors make the most of the sprightly humour, and the verbal jousting is entertaining throughout. Fox’s voice seems a little strained at times, but he plays the part with relish and, particularly in the second act, imbues Henry with real depth.

Stephen Unwin’s direction is clear and unfussy, each scene separated by a choreography of moving furniture, which serves to underline the theatricality. But I think perhaps more layers might have been unearthed had the actors multi-rolled, further calling into question the whole notion of reality. As it is, it’s all a bit one-note, and something of a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Death of Stalin

23/10/17

If there was a prize for ‘Most Unlikely Subject for a Comedy’, the death of Russian premier Joseph Stalin would probably figure on the list of prime contenders. I mean, how amusing can that actually be? But Armando Iannucci clearly isn’t interested in such preconceptions. Against all the odds, he’s fashioned a funny and subversive entertainment from this unpromising source, based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury.

It’s March, 1953, and Russia is cowering under the brutal regime of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. People can be rounded up and shot for the most spurious of reasons – perhaps they’re intellectuals. Perhaps they belong to the wrong organisation. Perhaps their faces just don’t quite fit. The atmosphere of paranoia is amply portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, where radio director Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), is forced to restage a live performance by a symphony orchestra, simply because Stalin has phoned up and asked for a recording of it – and unfortunately no such recording has actually been made. ‘Don’t worry,’ Andryev assures his bemused audience as he ushers them frantically back to their seats. ‘You won’t be killed. I promise.’

Armando Iannucci’s comedy of terrors is a brave and wonderfully assured undertaking, finding comic mileage in the absurdity of day-to-day existence under the jackboot of a tyrant – and from the unexpected possibilities that are unleashed when that tyranny finally comes to an end. When Stalin unexpectedly drops dead from a heart attack, the various members of his government begin the complex task of jockeying for position in the new order and the results are a joy to behold.

The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of authenticity, but to be fair, there’s no real attempt to make it feel authentic. Characters talk in a mix of accents from regional British to (in the case of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Krushchev) broad American, and the script misses no opportunity to go for a well-timed belly laugh.  

The cast is stellar – I particularly like Simon Russell Beale as head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, a smiling assassin who hides his vile nature under a mask of cheerful bonhomie. Jeffrey Tambour is also excellent as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, who suddenly finds himself simultaneously having to lead the country in its collective grief and incapable of coming to a rational decision about anything. Rupert Friend has a lot of fun with the role of Vassily, Stalin’s loose-canon, vodka-swilling son. But the film’s undoubted comic highlight is Jason Isaacs as straight talking ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union’, Georgy Zhukov, the hilarity aided no end by the fact that he talks with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. I’ve no idea why that’s so funny, it just is.

Okay, so this isn’t quite the comic masterpiece that some have dubbed it. The film suffers somewhat from the age-old problem of having nobody in particular to root for, since they all appear to be lying, double-dealing creeps – unless of course, you count Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, a concert pianist who seems to be the only person in the film brave enough to speak her mind about Stalin’s cruelty; but hers is a cameo role, acted out on the sidelines. The only other character we remotely care about is Stalin’s hapless daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who can only watch the carnage that unfolds in the wake of her father’s death and hope against hope that she’ll somehow make it out of there alive.

Weighing in at a relatively sprightly 106 minutes, The Death of Stalin is a clever and accomplished movie, well worth investigating. This is Iannucci playing to his strengths as a political satirist and mostly coming up with the goods. Interesting though, that despite a script peppered with crackling dialogue, the film’s funniest scene is an entirely visual one. Go figure.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney