Month: April 2021

Sound of Metal

13/04/21

Amazon Prime

Sound of Metal has been making waves at film festivals around the world and has recently garnered multiple nominations for both BAFTAs and Oscars. It’s easy to see why it’s earned such acclaim. Despite that pugnacious title, this is a surprisingly gentle and reflective film and it’s also, I think, rather unique. It’s fair to say that I’ve never seen another movie quite like it.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a heavy metal duo, providing the beat for his singer/guitarist girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), to vocalise over. The two of them are in the middle of a big tour, driving around America in Ruben’s RV and looking forward to the releasing of their new album. From the brief performance we witness over the opening credits, it’s clear that Blackgammon devote considerably more attention to their amplification than they do to their songs – but they do manage to create a thumping, propulsive sound that has stirred up a sizeable following.

Ruben and Lou are both former drug addicts, and are just about managing to stay clean, despite all the temptations they encounter on tour.

And then, just before going onstage one night, Ruben suffers a sudden and catastrophic loss of hearing. He has to get through the ensuing performance on autopilot, but it’s evident to Lou that something isn’t right. Afterwards, he confesses his problem to her, and she insists that they contact their sponsor, Hector, to see what can be done about the situation. Meanwhile, Ruben visits a hearing specialist, who advises him that he needs to avoid loud noise at all costs – tricky, to say the least – and also mentions the possibility of cochlear implants, an operation that costs thousands of dollars, but which could give Ruben back some degree of hearing.

In the meantime, he is despatched to a rural shelter for deaf, recovering addicts, run by the taciturn Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his own hearing in the Vietnam War. Joe insists that Ruben can only stay at the retreat alone – or not at all, should he decide to have those implants. Joe is adamant that deafness is not a handicap and that surgery is the wrong approach. He advises Ruben to sit alone, to learn sign language and to experience his own ‘stillness.’

Ruben struggles to engage with the latter and though he starts to make progress at the retreat, he is still torn about the thought of those implants… and he thinks he can see a possible way to pay for them.

Sound of Metal is full of unexpected delights, one of which is – ironically – the soundtrack. Not the song that Blackgammon play, mind, but the incidental effects, which it took fifteen technicians to create. Elaborate soundscapes are featured throughout the film, alternating between the rich textures of nature and the weird, twisted versions that Ruben receives as his hearing begins to deteriorate. The most vivid example is at Lou’s birthday party, hosted by her musician father, Richard (Mathieu Almeric), where the sound cuts from a pretty duet performed by Lou and Richard, to the desecrated travesty that Ruben can actually hear. It’s the film’s most poignant moment.

It’s more than just the sound, though. Ahmed (who currently appears to be one of the busiest actors in the business) does a terrific job of portraying Ruben’s mounting terror as the thing he loves most in the world – the music that he and Lou create together- is cruelly taken away from him.

This won’t be for everyone – and that misleading title doesn’t really help – but it’s well worth the watch.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Concrete Cowboy

12/04/21

Netflix

There’s nothing innovative about the plot of Concrete Cowboy. The ‘troubled teen learns to better himself by caring for an animal’ trope is very well worn, with shining beacons such as Kes and Old Yeller really making their mark. But writer/director Ricky Staub’s movie is nevertheless well worth watching, because it’s hard to tire of redemption tales, and this one shines a light on a little-known community: black cowboys in Philadelphia.

This isn’t just my ignorance; the movie spells it out. Most of us don’t know black cowboys exist; they’ve been whitewashed out of history. In fact, we don’t expect to see poor black Philadelphians on horseback at all, but there they are, eking out a living from their urban stables.

Caleb McLaughlin is Cole, and he’s in bother. Again. Expelled from yet another Detroit school, Cole is running out of options. His mum, Amahle (Liz Priestley), knows she needs to do something radical. And so, despite his protests, she packs Cole’s bags and drives him to Philadelphia, telling him he has to spend the summer with his dad, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is not at all keen on the idea, especially when he realises just how unconventional Harp’s living arrangements are. Sleeping on a sofa isn’t such a big deal, but sharing a room with a horse is beyond the pale.

It’s not easy. Harp is kind but very strict, and Cole doesn’t take well to discipline. And there is temptation in Philadelphia too, in the form of Cole’s childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who’s risking everything by double-crossing the drug dealers he works for. Cole goes along for the ride – and for the fancy new trainers – but he soon realises the danger he’s in…

But he doesn’t need to follow Smoosh, because he has a horse, Boo: a wild, unbroken animal that only he can get close to. What will he do?

McLaughlin delivers a fine performance; it’s easy to empathise with the moody teenager he portrays, to understand his conflicting emotions. The ensemble cast are great too, notably Lorraine Toussaint as stable owner, Nessie, and Ivannah-Mercedes as love interest, Esha. But my favourite thing about this film is the exposé of the cowboys’ precarious situation. They rarely own their stables; as renters, they’re vulnerable to eviction, if a landowner can make money by selling to property developers as an area gentrifies, for example. It seems so wrong that their entire way of life can be threatened like this, and so short-sighted. All Smush wants is to earn enough money to move to the countryside and live on a ranch; if people are denied opportunities, of course they turn to crime.

So, no, it’s not original, and yes, you can see every plot turn a mile away, but Concrete Cowboy is still a fascinating watch.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Mauritanian

11/04/21

Amazon Prime Video

The Mauritanian has received mixed reviews, but I find it hard to see why anyone outside the “flog’ em, hang ’em” brigade would have a negative reaction here. It’s a nuanced and informative piece, making public the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the eponymous young Mauritanian, who, suspected of links to Al Quaeda, was detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen long years.

Kevin Macdonald’s film never points the reader in the direction of Slahi’s guilt or innocence, because that’s literally the point: we don’t know, and neither do the people who incarcerated him. Defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) reinforces the importance of this when she admonishes her young assistant, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), for responding emotionally to Shahi’s written confession. ‘Everyone is entitled to a defence,’ she tells her, and, ‘Since when did this country start locking people up without a trial?’ Because Slahi has been picked up on the flimsiest of evidence, and if we lose haebus corpus then surely we lose the right to refer to our legal system as ‘justice.’

Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is – disconcertingly – even more convincing as a US army man than he is as an English toff) is tasked with representing the state and, initially, he’s more than willing. Shahi is accused of plotting the 9/11 terror attack, where Couch lost a close personal friend. But Couch is a man of principle, and he can’t proceed in good conscience when he realises that Shahi’s confession was coerced through torture, and that the rule of law has been abandoned. Couch wants the guilty parties to pay – but he wants to make sure they are, actually, guilty. (He’s picky like that!)

Rahim is a revelation in the central role. He is charming, erudite, angry and afraid. The torture scenes – artfully shot, hallucinatory flashbacks – are horrifying; no one, no matter what they’ve done, should be brutalised this way. Foster shines as you’d expect her to, depicting a version of Hollander that is all grim determination and moral rectitude, a fierce advocate for doing the right thing.

This isn’t an exciting film: it’s the slow, careful unveiling of an unpalatable truth – namely, that the USA is violating its own doctrine in a detention camp deliberately situated far beyond its shores. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the hope, but – as long as there are people like Hollander in the world – they will, hopefully, eventually, be called to account. In the meantime, there are still more than forty prisoners there, and their plight needs addressing.

The Mauritanian is well worth a few hours of your time.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Palm Springs

10/04/21

Amazon Prime

If I told you I’d just watched a movie about a couple stuck in a time loop – how, for them, every day begins in the same way and that, every time they fall asleep, they wake up to find that they’re right back where they started, you’d doubtless nod and say, ‘Oh, yeah, Groundhog Day. Seen that.’ But Palm Springs unabashedly takes that same central premise and runs with it, taking the concept into fresh terrain – and manages to do so without once feeling like a rip off. Furthermore, with pretty much the whole world stuck in a repetitious pandemic loop, where every day is depressingly similar to its predecessor, the film seems eerily prescient.

This is the story of Nyles (Andy Samberg), who’s at the titular resort with his odious girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), and forced to spend every single day of his life reliving a wedding. The bride-to-be is Misty’s sister, Tala (Camila Mendes); the groom is Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Let’s face it, if you have to repeat an experience over and over for the rest of your days, somebody else’s family’s wedding isn’t going to figure highly on your bucket list. Nyles has been stuck in this loop for as long as he can remember, ever since wandering into a mysterious cave in the desert, and he’s resigned himself to creating as much variety as he can within these narrow limits, in the certain knowledge that if things start to go badly wrong, he can just step in front of a truck and start over.

But then he begins a flirtation with Tala’s sister, Sarah (Christina Miloti), who follows him into the cave and promptly finds herself trapped in the same dire situation. Determined not to amble along in the same accepting fashion as Nyles, she immediately attempts to disrupt the process that he has long ago accepted as his norm – and things begin to get really strange. Palm Springs is a sprightly, good natured confection, that never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. On the contrary, it gallops along, making its one hour, thirty minute running time fly by almost too quickly. Samberg and Miloti are an appealing duo – Milotti in particular exerts a persuasive, kooky charm – and there’s a cameo by the ever reliable J.K. Simmons as Roy, a man who from time to time enjoys hunting down – and killing – Nyles with a bow and arrow. (Don’t ask.)

While it’s played mostly for laughs, Palm Springs does posit an intriguing question. Are people really destined to be together forever? Or, as Nyles argues, is it better for them to have fun for a while and then head off in opposite directions to seek their own new horizons? And, when confronted by his unexpected feelings for Sarah, how can he ever hope to stick to his convictions?

It’s refreshing in these troubled times to find a film that doesn’t bog itself down in too many complications. My advice is simply to buckle in and enjoy the ride. It will take you to some unexpected places.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

To Olivia

08/04/21

Now TV

It’s the early 1960s and ambitious author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is smarting from the lukewarm reception afforded to his recently published children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Undeterred, he’s planning his next opus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We know he’s an author because he constantly talks about the work in progress, dropping little references that relate to what’s coming next and using his three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo, as sounding boards for his new ideas. This is something that, in my experience, real authors never do. Should I ever fall into the habit, please feel free to tell me to shut up.

Dahl lives in darkest Surrey with his wife, acclaimed screen actress, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is herself dissatisfied by the fact that her once eventful career seems to be heading nowhere fast, since she’s reached a certain age – though she has been offered a small part in Martin Ritt’s upcoming movie, a little thing called Hud. (Roald thinks the part is beneath her and advises her not to bother).

But their country idyll is shattered when Olivia contracts measles and, with no vaccine available in the 1960s, promptly dies of encephalitis. This film then is about Dahl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the death of his daughter and his subsequent struggle to maintain both his marriage to Neal and his relationships with his other children. On paper, it promises to be a visceral tearjerker. But somehow, it’s not.

John Hays’ film makes a valiant attempt to cover this difficult subject matter, but seems to shy away from anything too tortuous or distasteful, which means it all feels rather too cosy for its own good. Attempts have been made to ‘plain up’ Hugh Bonneville with a false nose and a balding pate but, even when he’s being unpleasant – something that the real Roald Dahl was allegedly very adept at – he’s still basically Hugh Bonneville, the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. Hawes is perhaps a better fit for Neal, but isn’t given the kind of catharsis her character requires. Even her brief interplay with Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, who certainly looks the part) seems more concerned with pointing out how capable she is at putting the director and lead actor straight about their own project, which just feels downright odd.

To Olivia is curiously underwhelming. There’s an admittedly lovely turn from Isabella Jonsson as Tessa and there’s also the final performance from Geoffrey Palmer as a deeply unpleasant archbishop of Canterbury, ranting about animals not being allowed into the kingdom of heaven, but even that isn’t enough to make this project fly.

It’s like being assaulted with nicely plumped cushions – you don’t really feel any impact.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Home by Nico: Cooking ‘Vietnam’

07/04/21

http://www.home-x.com

In the current situation, the best chance of enjoying a memorable meal – short of making it yourself – is either the perennial takeaway or one of those ‘cook at home’ boxes. Over the past year, we’ve sampled quite a few of the latter, from different sources, with varying degrees of success. Something about the ‘Vietnam’ menu from Home by Nico hooks us, so we book it in for a suitable evening and, on the appointed day, within a designated one hour time slot (always useful), a box with the approximate dimensions of a small continent arrives at our door.

Once opened up, and unpacked, it’s apparent that the Nico team have put quite a bit of thought into this. We notice for instance, that the containers holding the various courses are composed of recyclable materials with a removable plastic veneer. This cuts down considerably on the inevitable landfill. We’ve often felt guilty about the wastage on some of the earlier meals we’ve sampled, so this feels like an important step in the right direction. The chefs have also tried hard to make us feel like we’re being suitably spoiled. They’ve provided enticing little boxes of garnish for each course and, though there is a certain amount of preparation required on our part, it’s no great hardship, with every step carefully explained. You’d be hard put to get it wrong.

For starters there are Duck Bao Buns – gloriously sticky steamed confections with a generous shredded duck filling and a selection of appetising garnishes including pickled vegetables, hoi sin roasted peanuts and crispy shallots. To say that the course is flavoursome would be something of an understatement: it is vibrant with flavour, as indeed is everything else about this meal. And the aromas are exquisite!

Next up there’s Hot and Sour Pho – a bowl of smoky broth, with earthy rice noodles, enoki mushrooms, lemongrass and chilli oil. This is perfectly spiced, just hot enough to set my taste buds alight but never overwhelming them. The pho is studded with red chillis and miniature sweetcorn and we polish it off very quickly indeed.

At this point, we take a short break and enjoy a couple of glasses of the accompanying wine, The Rambler, a fruity South African white that makes a perfect cooler after that fiery broth.

The main course is Caramel Belly of Pork Hot Pot – which is every bit as appetising as it sounds. There are four thick slabs of succulent meat, which need to be fried off, with a covering of aromatic sticky glaze. This is served with stir fried slaw, ginger and chilli. There are also two side dishes – some Sautéed Asian Greens with garlic and ginger; and a Clay Pot Aubergine, with green beans and chunks of potato. Individually, all the elements are good, but, when put together on a plate, they create a kind of magic.

Our past experience has been that the sweet is often a disappointment in these home boxes, but happily, this is not the case here. The Vietnamese Coffee turns out to be a thick, smooth pannacotta, with coffee sponge and a layer of crispy coffee crumb on top. It’s deliciously indulgent, almost velvety in its smoothness – and the fact that it comes in a re-useable glass jar is an added bonus. This pudding is irresistible right down to the last spoonful.

All-in-all, this might just be the most accomplished ‘meal at home’ we’ve tried and it serves to exemplify the Nico brand, offering sophisticated cooking at an affordable price. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for their next offering.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Minari

02/04/21

Curzon Home Cinema

This is our second Korean language film in a row, but the differences between The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil and Minari couldn’t be more marked. While the former is a brutal, no-nonsense punch to the gut, Minari is gentle, lyrical and beautifully understated – yet within those lovingly crafted twists and turns lies a powerful message about the importance of family and the folly of blind ambition. And, while the first film stays within the harsh confines of an Korean city, this one ventures out into the American midwest.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is a Korean immigrant, doggedly pursuing his personal dream in the wilds of Arkansas, dragging his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and his children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) along behind him. Jacob and Monica make their living sexing chicks – and trust me, that really is a valued occupation in this neck of the woods – but Jacob has bigger dreams. He longs to own his own farm, to grow vegetables in order to supply the ever burgeoning numbers of Korean supermarkets around the area.

But it’s going to require some hard graft. First a well needs to be dug, one that will supply him with enough water to get him through that all-important first year. And then the crop needs to be tended, around the clock.

It’s not plain sailing. For one thing, young David has a serious heart condition, which means he must never ever exert himself – and for another, Monica doesn’t share Jacob’s ambitions for the future. She’s not mad about living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and she hates the unfamiliar wide open spaces that surround her. In order to lighten the load, Monica’s Mother, Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn), is brought over from South Korea to live with the family. Soon-ja is a fascinating character, full of contradictions: at times foul-mouthed and openly rude towards her white neighbours; at others sweet, wise and warmly supportive of her grandchildren. David is initially dismissive of her but her influence on him and the rest of the family soon takes root, just as effectively as the Minari seeds she plants down by the creek…

This is a gorgeous film, beautifully acted by the cast – particularly by Yuh-Jung Youn, whose performance has already been rewarded with heaps of best supporting actor nominations. Alan S. Kim is also a constant delight, offering a skilled performance that belies his tender years.

But this film is much more than just an actor-led piece. Lee Isaac Chung, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the directorial reins with consummate skill, while Lachlan Milne’s shimmering cinematography makes every frame a visual delight. I also love that there are so many surprises here. The local community are not the hostile antagonists familiar from so many multi-cultural dramas, but are supportive and welcoming to their new neighbours. Even the initially forbidding, Paul (Will Paton), a local man given to speaking in tongues and lugging a life-size wooden cross around every Sunday, turns out to be a regular pussycat, who wants nothing more than to befriend these new arrivals.

And… isn’t there just a suggestion here of a miraculous happening within the Yi family? Something that, in their struggle for everyday survival, they barely even notice.

This is an absolute must-see, thoughtful, poignant and at times suspenseful. Miss it and weep.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

01/04/21

BBC iPlayer

Auntie Beeb seems an unlikely place to find this adrenalin-fuelled, kick-ass action movie, but there it is lurking in the vaults of iPlayer, all ready to be unleashed at the touch of a button. Despite that ‘does what it says on the tin’ title, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is sure to appeal to fans of Korean cinema – though perhaps not those who ‘enjoyed Parasite but find scenes of exaggerated violence distressing.’ Like many films in this genre, there’s an inordinate amount of fisticuffs, kicks and bullets being exchanged at regular intervals, albeit in a fairly cartoonish sort of way.

‘The Gangster’ of the title is Jung (Ma Dong-seok, previously seen in Train to Busan), a rather unpleasant fellow to be acquainted with, if the contents of his punch bag are anything to go by. Nattily attired and fond of his cigars, he heads up one of the major crime syndicates in his home city of Cheonan and, thanks to the regular bribes he pays to the resident police force, he’s free to ply his various trades – drugs, gambling, extortion, slapping people around – without too much interference.

But, one night, his car is rear-ended by mysterious serial killer, K (Jung Tae-seok – the ‘Devil’ in this narrative), and when Jung gets out to exchange words with him, K viciously assaults the gangster with a large kitchen knife. Not only is this extremely painful for Jung, it’s also something of a professional embarrassment for a man who is supposedly feared by everybody on his home turf. Honestly, what’s the world coming to?

While convalescing from his injuries, Jung is approached by ambitious cop, Jang (Mu-Yeol Kim). He’s exasperated by the fact that his boss is one of the people happily taking bribes from gangsters, and he’s also become obsessed with apprehending K and achieving a promotion as a result. He suggests that Jung might like to team up with him so they can pool their resources in order to catch the killer – a kind of Jung/Jang approach. This all sounds faintly ridiculous – and the claim that the film is ‘based on a true story’ probably needs to be taken with a large pinch of soy – but nevertheless, the result is a proper thrill ride. There are chases, shoot outs and stand offs galore and it’s all backed up by a story that’s clever enough to keep you hooked, even if your eyebrows are likely to remain permanently raised.

Little wonder TGTCTD has already been earmarked for a Hollywood remake, with Sylvester Stallone rumoured to be the major player. Chances are, the Americans will airbrush it until it loses all of its rough charms, so maybe grab your chance to see Won Tae-Lee’s original before it moves on.

Whatever else you feel, you won’t be bored.

4 stars

Philip Caveney