Month: September 2020

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