Month: May 2021

Monster

13/05/21

Netflix

A courtroom drama with a difference, Monster stands apart, mostly by virtue of its artful direction. Anthony Mandler’s thought-provoking story centres around seventeen year old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a film student with a promising future. With wealthy parents and a place at a prestigious college, Steve’s a regular golden boy. But a recent robbery in a Harlem bodega has gone horribly wrong, a shopkeeper’s been murdered and Steve stands accused of acting as lookout for the perpetrators, James King (ASAP Rocky) and ‘Bobo’ Evans (John David Washington). A witness has placed Steve at the scene of the crime and he soon finds himself arrested.

It’s an unlikely fit. King and Evans are streetwise villains with previous form, but Steve has never been in trouble in his life. How can he possibly have become involved in something like this? As his lecturer, Leroy (Tim Blake Nelson), points out, this is a kid who inspires trust in everyone he meets. And yet… he’s been identified.

The conceit here is that all the events of the story are filtered through Steve’s distinctive point of view. As a filmmaker himself, he cannot resist presenting them as a sort of screenplay, complete with titles and camera directions. (Don’t worry, this is way better than I’ve made it sound – it’s an assured marriage between style and content, neither element allowed to outweigh the other.)

We follow him through his arrest, his subsequent incarceration and on to his trial, where his appointed defence attorney, Maureen O’ Brian (Jennifer Ehle), does her best to guide him through the pitfalls of a court appearance and keeps reminding him that the way he presents himself to the jury will be of paramount importance. In flashbacks, we also witness his interactions with King and Evans, the way he is drawn to them as subjects for a film project he’s working on, how he’s caught up in their ‘outlaw’ attitude. But he knows there’s a line between him and them, doesn’t he? And he’s surely never going to cross it…

Monster is ultimately about the allure of the forbidden, the different choices we face in our lives. It also has a lot to say about class – it effortlessly demonstrates how Steve’s privileged lifestyle affords him opportunities that many of his peers will never experience – and how it might be the single factor that stands between him and the unthinkable. Harrison Jnr is compelling in the lead role and Ehle provides a calm, but steely presence as the defender who believes in his innocence. Originally filmed in 2018 and showcased at the Sundance Festival the same year, Monster has had a long wait to find its audience, but it’s been worthwhile.

This is an assured and original drama with plenty to recommend it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Honest Thief

12/05/21

Amazon Prime

A Liam Neeson thriller is, by usual standards, an all too familiar commodity. We know what to expect, don’t we? Big Liam will play a nice, easygoing sort of feller who is calm and controlled until somebody causes harm to his wife/daughter/grandma/kitten (tick as appropriate), whereupon he calls upon the various talents he’s learned in his past – lock-picking/mountain climbing/paragliding (tick as appropriate) to exact a brutal and wince-inducing revenge upon those who have angered him.

Blood flows, teeth fly in many directions and the end credits roll. Job done.

To give Honest Thief all due credit, it does its level best to vary up the established formula, offering more nuance and characterisation than we’ve seen in previous efforts. Here, Big Liam plays Tom Dolan, the ‘honest thief’ of the title. Better known as the ‘in and out bandit’ (a monicker he loathes) he’s been responsible for robbing a whole string of banks over the past six years and has amassed a fortune of nine million dollars, which he keeps tucked away in a storage facility. But his life changes when he meets Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh) and it isn’t too long before he’s pledged his adoration and asked her to marry him. However, those ill-gotten gains don’t sit too comfortably with his plans for the future, so he determines to approach the FBI and offer them a deal – he’ll return all the money – that’s right, he hasn’t spent a penny of it – in return for a lighter sentence with visiting rights. In just a year or so, he and Annie can be together as man and wife. Lovely.

But, of course, the prospect of being handed a cool nine million bucks in a cardboard box is enough to tempt even an FBI agent into straying off the path of law and order – and how easy would it be to simply pin all the blame on Tom, who isn’t denying the fact that he stole the money in the first place? Therein lies the rub.

For the film’s first half, there’s barely a glimpse of the Big Liam of old. Tom’s relationship with Annie is actually rather charming and there’s also a measured performance by Jeffrey Donovan as FBI agent Sean Meyers, a man whose recent marital breakup has caused him to reassess his life. He’s also accompanied by a ridiculously cute dog. Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos are two junior FBI men, who are tempted by the prospect of easy millions and who are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their objective.

In the second half, we’re back in more generic territory, as somebody is foolish enough to harm Annie and Tom calls upon his talents (as an accomplished thief) to bring down the necessary retribution – but even here, the shootings, beatings and explosions are reined back to a respectable level and the various plot twists are ingenious enough to keep me thoroughly entertained.

This was never going to be a cinematic masterpiece, but as a slice of solid, fast-paced action, it’ll do nicely until the next one comes along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Things Heard and Seen

08/05/21

Netflix

Many films can be accused of not having enough going on but, in the case of Things Heard and Seen, there’s the opposite problem. There’s so much happening here the movie’s creators can’t seem to make their mind up exactly what they want this to be. In its early stages, it looks like it’s setting out its stall as a straightforward haunted house tale – but, as the convoluted storyline unfolds, it becomes much more than that. And really, this should be a positive development, because, let’s face it, there’s hardly a shortage of those. Ultimately, however, it’s TH & S’s ambition that makes it overreach itself.

It’s 1980 and Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) is working happily as an art restorer (though she’s experiencing an ongoing battle with an eating disorder). Then her husband, George (James Norton), qualifies as a lecturer in fine art and promptly lands a job in Chosen, upstate New York. Almost before Catherine knows what’s happening, the couple and their young daughter have relocated to a remote farmhouse, one that by all accounts comes with a sinister backstory. Catherine feels isolated here, but is determined to make the best of things. The couple have the house renovated and even find part time jobs for Eddie Vayle (Alex Neustaedter) and his younger brother, Cole (Jack Gore), who actually grew up in the house – though George keeps this fact a secret from his wife.

George starts his classes and is an instant hit, both with his young female students and with his department head, Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), who, it turns out, has a bit of a passion for the occult. Catherine starts experiencing troubling visions in the homestead – flashing lights, eerie whispers and glimpses of a sinister woman. And then it emerges that George might not be quite the charming, artistic academic that Catherine has always believed him to be…

Writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini never seem quite sure which direction they want to head in next, and opt instead to veer left and right, trying to cover all the bases. The acting is mostly good (Norton in particular is deliciously villainous) and even minor characters are afforded plenty of characterisation, right down to Karen Allen’s realtor, Mare Laughton and Rhea Seahorn’s inquisitive neighbour, Justine. And, to the film’s credit, there are some scenes here that are genuine surprises.

But somehow the overall story arc fails to gel and several of the plot developments we’re asked to accept are frankly pushing credulity a little too far.

As it thunders headlong into its final third, all credibility has pretty much gone out of the window, and the last scene demonstrates a conceit that must have been in the author’s mind from the very beginning. It feels shoehorned in and makes for a disappointing conclusion to what has mostly been a decent enough entertainment. 

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mitchells vs the Machines

06/05/21

Netflix

A sinister organisation enslaves the planet Earth and the only surviving family must fight to free humankind.

It sounds like the plot of a po-faced, dystopian nightmare, doesn’t it? But in the hands of animation veterans, Lord and Miller, what emerges is an irresistibly good-natured romp, replete with funny one-liners and a whole stash of movie references. You’d have to be pretty dour not to enjoy what’s on offer here.

The Mitchells are essentially a family of misfits. Eldest daughter, Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is a movie-mad teenager (though with that name, you might reasonably have expected her to be more of a theatre fan). She spends every spare minute making films on her phone and is looking forward to going to college in California, where she can study the beloved art full time. Her little brother, Aaron (Michael Rianda), is dinosaur-obsessed and incapable of talking to girls. Mother, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is the family peacemaker, while her husband, Rick (Danny McBride), is so out of touch with the changing times, it hurts. Ask this man to send a simple text message and he struggles helplessly – and his idea of trying to bond with his daughter, as she prepares to leave home for college, is to set up an across country family drive to California, so they can all reconnect.

But, en route to their destination, an unexpected problem occurs. Like most other people in America, the Mitchells use PAL as their provider of all things digital – a brief look at one of the company’s pompous launch events tells you that we could easily substitute the word APPLE or FACEBOOK. Helmed by young social media impresario, Mark Bowman (Eric André), PAL is a complex system that can run every aspect of a human’s life. But, when Mark decides it’s time for an upgrade to a more sophisticated version, PAL doesn’t appreciate being made redundant and decides to initiate a coup. Almost before humankind knows quite what’s happening, they are being becoming slaves to their own creation.

But the Mitchells are not ones to give in easily…

Wittily scripted by writer/directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, TMVTM takes off at a gallop and rarely pauses to stop for breath. The state of the art animation is cleverly interwoven with more simplistic flourishes, clearly designed to mirror the style we’re shown in Katie’s homemade animations and there’s a sprightly rock soundtrack against which a frantic series of chases and punch ups plays out. For those seeking a little more depth to the proceedings, there are also visual references to famous movies mixed into the formula. I spotted half a dozen on the first watch, and I’ve no doubt repeated viewings would unearth many more. Be warned, some of them are pretty obscure. (Look at the pattern on Katie’s socks, for instance. Do they remind you of a carpet in a famous movie hotel?) Seriously, movie nerds are going to have a field day with this.

The master stroke though, is having the villainous PAL voiced by Olivia Colman. Hearing her sweet tones wrap themselves around some very nasty commands is probably worth the price of a Netflix subscription all by itself. Oh and the Mitchells are also the owners of an amusing dog called Doug the Pug. Win, win.

Okay, so TMVTM does have a broad sweep of sentimentality running through its core, though it never feels too overdone. While this animation might not be on punching terms with the top rank of Pixar productions, it’s nonetheless a welcome slice of exuberant escapism with a serious message at its core.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Stowaway

04/05/21

Netflix

There’s a familiar shaggy dog story which concerns four passengers on a stricken airplane, who discover that they have only been issued with three parachutes and must therefore decide which of them is going to have to make do without one. Will a passenger do the decent thing and volunteer? Or will they simply opt to push one of the others out of the door? I wonder if writer/director Joe Penna took his inspiration from that same tale? At any rate, what we have here is a futuristic version of the same conundrum. In space.

Three astronauts embark on what will be a two year mission to Mars. They comprise Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, for once given free rein to employ her native accent), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and wide-eyed medical researcher, Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick). The actual details of their mission are somewhat nebulous, but that’s not the main concern of this story, which is far more interested in moral dilemmas.

The plot kicks in when the three crew members discover an injured man lying inside one of the er… hatches. He is engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) who – in equally nebulous circumstances – has ended up wounded and unconscious onboard. He is quickly patched up by Zoe and, despite being somewhat bewildered to discover he’s not going home for two years, seems a nice enough fellow, determined to fit in with three strangers. But his presence on the spaceship has caused complications, not least of which is the fact that his prone body has somehow damaged a vital bit of equipment and… there will now only be enough oxygen to allow three people to reach Mars safely.

In short, one of them needs to die, fairly promptly. Unless of course, they can come up with a better er… parachute.

Stowaway is an unashamedly low budget affair and, while it manages to make the interior of the ship thoroughly believable, whenever the characters are required to step outside of it, the result looks like a less convincing version of Gravity. This is particularly evident in an extended sequence where David and Zoe undertake a perilous space walk along a constantly rotating structure in order to reach some oxygen tanks. While it manages to exert a degree of genuine suspense in the telling, this idea has been done before and, it must be said, more convincingly than here, most recently in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky.

It’s nicely acted by Kendrick and Anderson, who make an appealing double act. Dae Kim and Collette have rather less to do and are mostly required to sit around looking glum. Understandable, under the circumstances.

More importantly, perhaps, that central moral dilemma is never satisfyingly explored and the story’s resolution does feel like a bit of a cop out. Still, this isn’t a total dud. It keeps me reasonably entertained throughout and it’s perhaps only afterwards that I start to seriously question some aspects of the plot. I can only say that Hyperion – the company that organised this mission to Mars – needs to take another look at its safety procedures.

And they should definitely start by providing more parachutes.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Nomadland

01/05/21

Disney+

In more usual circumstances, we’d have viewed all the Oscar contenders well before the night of the announcement. In these chastened times, our earliest opportunity to watch 2021’s ‘Best Film’ winner is to catch it on Disney+, the night after its release onto the mighty mouse’s streaming service. As ever we find ourselves longing for a bigger screen, but Nomadland is the kind of film that transcends such considerations. It’s an absolute joy, and in my opinion, fully worthy of its win.

It’s winter 2011 and Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down, due to the recession. Sixty-one years of age and recently widowed, Fern can’t afford to pay rent on a property, so she seizes upon the only option left to her. She packs up a few belongings into her little van and hits the road, looking for whatever temporary work she can get hold of along the way. She first finds a job at an Amazon fulfilment centre through the Christmas break, packing gifts for delivery, where she makes friends with fellow-worker, Linda (Linda May).

Linda tells her about a desert rendezvous in Arizona, run by a man called Bob Wells (like most of the supporting actors in this film, Bob plays himself). Longing for sunnier climes, Fern makes her way South when the Amazon work dries up and learns that are many others in her situation – elderly people who, through no fault of their own, have been cast adrift and abandoned by society. Now they are obliged to work like University students on a break, taking whatever menial work they can find – packing gifts, farming sugar beet, waiting-on in burger bars and cafes – and doing it without complaint.

Fern drifts calmly through the process, taking it all in her stride – and as she travels, the beauties of the ever-changing American landscape are revealed in a painterly style that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick movie. Fern is a beguiling character, plucky, indomitable and self-contained. When somebody says that they’ve heard she is homeless, she replies with evident pride. ‘Oh no, I’m not homeless. Just houseless.’

Writer/director Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary film draws a line that can be traced back to the pioneers of the Old West – or perhaps, more accurately, to the migrant workers of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I have despaired of America recently, but this film serves to remind me that so many of its inhabitants have qualities to be admired – it’s just the political system that governs them that should be condemned for treating them so shoddily. And yet, unusually, this is also a film that has no real villains; indeed, pretty much everyone Fern encounters treats her respectfully, offering her help, support and comradeship.

For a time she falls in with fellow wanderer, Dave (David Strathairn), and the two of them seem to be a good fit – but when he’s offered a way out of his situation, he’d be a fool not to take it. Wouldn’t he?

Calm, thoughtful and inspiring, Nomadland is a timely reminder that we need to value the right things in life. Like the pieces of crockery Fern carries with her, gifted to her by her late father, they are just things. Once broken, they become meaningless. Perhaps they always were. Zhao’s ultimate message seems to be that the qualities we carry within us through life are more important than the baggage we acquire along the way.

And if I’m in danger of sounding like a talking fridge magnet here, please don’t be put off.

This really is a very special film.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Home X – Roast by the Loveable Rogue

01/05/21

home-x.com

Oh dear. I suppose it had to happen some time. Over the last fourteen months, we have sampled seven ‘meal kits’ from different restaurants, and they’ve all been very good. We’ve missed eating out, of course, and are keen to get back to it as soon as we’re both fully vaccinated, but – for now – the ‘at home’ experience is what we’ve got. And Roast’s chicken dinner looks like a winner, winner. 

Sadly, it just doesn’t work for us. It’s too complicated, and – unlike the other home kits we’ve had – we have to work out the timings ourselves. Confusingly, we’re supposed to roast the chicken at 180˚ but the potatoes and veggies, we’re told, need 200˚. How are we supposed to arrange that? It seems a bit much to assume that everyone has a double oven available. We certainly don’t, in our tiny tenement kitchen. 

I’m not sure why we’ve been sent batter instead of pre-cooked Yorkshire puddings. We have to cook them in advance because of space and temperature considerations. They emerge from the oven looking all golden and puffed up but, by the time we come to eat them an hour and a half later, they’re stodgy inedible lumps. I can make a decent Yorkshire pudding; I’m beginning to wish we’d just ordered a chicken from the butcher’s and done it all ourselves. (The reason we didn’t was because this was supposed to be both easier and more luxurious. Like the roast from Kyloe that we had just six short weeks ago. It can be done.)

It’s not all bad. The starter – a caramelised cauliflower and apple veloute with croutons and an apple and curry dressing – is absolutely delicious, silky and creamy and packed with flavour; the curried apple really makes it zing. And the pear and vanilla custard trifle we have for pudding is rather lovely too, particularly the almond crumb. 

But there’s no getting away from the fact that the main course – the roast itself – is a let down. There’s a rich chicken sauce that is indisputably wonderful. The roast potatoes and the vegetable ecrase are both… okay. But the honey glazed root vegetables are dry and flavourless; the cauliflower cheese is nondescript – and the Yorkshires are a disgrace. 

Following the instructions to the letter also means that our chicken is cold. It has to be. It’s supposed to rest for ten minutes, but we have to let it sit for much longer, because – once it’s been removed – we have to wait for the oven to heat up to 200˚ before we can pop in the rest of it (and the cauliflower cheese needs twenty minutes). It’s a good chicken, tasty and succulent, but I’d much prefer to eat it hot. 

All in all, this is a disappointment. Luckily, we have laid in a few decent bottles, and we’ve got an Oscar-winning film lined up to watch, so our evening isn’t quite lost. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity. And £55 is a lot to pay for that.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Black Bear

30/04/21

Curzon Home Cinema

Of course, my primary purpose here is to review Black Bear. But, before I do, let’s take a little look at Curzon Home Cinema. Why, I’d like to know, are there still no subtitles available for English language films on this platform? I try my best, where possible, to support indie endeavours over the major franchises, but this lack of accessibility is becoming something of a deal breaker. I can watch a film without subtitles; I just prefer not to. There are many, many people who simply can’t. Come on, Curzon. This needs to be resolved.

And so to Black Bear, sadly one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in a while. It’s not half as clever as it keeps telling us it is; even the fabulous Aubrey Plaza can’t save this one for me.

Be warned: there are spoilers ahead.

There’s a remote house by a lake. It’s owned by a couple, Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and Blair (Sarah Gadon), who market it as a retreat for creative people. Blair is pregnant. Gabe is a failed musician. Along comes Allison (Plaza), a film-maker. She’s here to write, but spends most of her time sitting staring at the lake dressed in a red swimming costume. They’re all horrible. Blair and Allison become jealous rivals on sight. Gabe is a Lawrence Fox type, who thinks he’s being edgy by saying that feminism is the cause of society’s collapse. Blair says she’s a feminist, shrieks for a while and then cries. Allison sits dead-eyed, agrees with Gabe, then says she’s only joking. And fucks him.

I don’t know what writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine is trying to say here. It’s very muddled. Of course, characters don’t speak their author’s thoughts, but Gabe is given a suspiciously long time to expound his anti-feminist views in excruciating detail.

And then we have a switcheroo, sort of, except nothing really changes. Now we see that they are all making a film: Gabe is the director, Allison and Blair are actors. But instead of Blair and Gabe being a pair, it’s Allison and Gabe. But Allison and Blair are still jealous of each other, because… why? Because of Gabe? Because they’re two women in the same house and that’s just what happens? It’s a curiously old-fashioned view of female relationships.

The bear rustles in the undergrowth, a big unsubtle metaphor. When we see him, just twice, he looks passive, almost cuddly.

There are moments here that glimmer with promise. The deliciously uncomfortable conversation in the first act, where Gabe and Blair undermine everything each other says. The frantic chaos of the film set: the prompt (Jennifer Kim) who can’t find her page; the runner (Paola Làzaro) who’s got the runs.

But there’s a cruelty at the heart of this story that just doesn’t sit well, a mean-spiritedness that seems to pervade everything. The performances are flawless. But the story is a mixed-up mess.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield