Month: June 2021

The Father

11/06/21

Cineworld

It’s been over a month since the 2021 Oscars, where The Father won awards for best male actor and best adapted screenplay, but somehow it seems I’ve been eagerly awaiting its arrival for much longer than that. It’s finally here, available to view on the big screen, where its powerful narrative pulses from every frame.

Anthony Hopkins is, it seems, the oldest recipient of the best actor award and we know, don’t we, that sometimes such honours are handed out because it’s late in an actor’s career and there might not be another chance to reward him? But make no mistake, his performance in the lead role is a genuine tour de force. As ‘Anthony,’ a widowed man enduring the terrifying, mind-scrambling rigours of Alzheimer’s, he pulls out all the stops, taking his character through a range of moods and manifestations – from grandstanding showoff to sly insinuator – before delivering a final, desperate scene that is absolutely devastating.

Those seeking a rollicking, sidesplitting comedy should be warned: this is not the film for you.

Anthony – when we first encounter him – is living alone in his spacious London apartment, where he’s receiving regular visits from his compassionate daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Anthony has recently dismissed his paid carer, claiming that she’s stolen his watch, and he’s adamant that he will not, under any circumstances, move out of the place that he has always regarded as home. But as the story progresses, the touchstones of his life crumble one by one as the familiar things around him begin to change at a terrifying rate. The place doesn’t look the same… items have been moved, rearranged. Anthony’s favourite painting is missing… and why does somebody by the name of Paul (Mark Gatiss) parade around saying that this is actually his apartment? Who is Paul exactly? Anne’s ex-husband? If so, who’s the other Paul (Rufus Sewell), and why does he act like he owns the place? And what’s all this nonsense about Anne moving to Paris?

Perhaps the new home help, Laura (Imogen Poots), might be able to put things in order, but why does she remind Anthony so much of his other daughter, Lucy, the one he seems to have lost touch with? And most bewildering of all, why is it that sometimes, even Anne appears to be a different person than she used to be?

Florian Zeller’s astonishing film, adapted from his stage play, unfolds almost like a psychological horror story, as Anthony struggles to take in what’s happening to him. While I expected this to be bleak, I’m not fully prepared for the power with which it hits me. There’s doubtless extra impact because, for the last ten years of her life, my own mother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s and I recognise many of the beats here as being absolutely authentic. Perhaps that’s why the tears are rolling so copiously down my face.

Despite being confined mostly to one set, The Father never feels stage bound, because so much of what I can see onscreen is in a constant state of flux and because, at times, I feel every bit as unsettled as Anthony does. I’m never entirely sure where a scene is taking place, when it it is set and who is present in it – and that’s not meant as a criticism, but as an observation about the story’s unsettling grip on me. While there was aways a danger of The Father being completely dominated by Hopkin’s extraordinary performance, Colman is as excellent as always, managing to kindle the audience’s sympathy with a mere glance. And Olivia Williams is also compelling as the film’s most enigmatic character.

I walk out of the cinema, bleary-eyed from crying and, if I still have a few unanswered questions, well, that feels exactly right. This is an assured film that handles its difficult subject with rare skill.

So, worth the wait? Most definitely. But maybe remember to take some hankies?

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

Dream Horse

09/06/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Yeah, yeah, we’ve seen it all before. A British film about a bunch of working-class people, cast adrift by the closure of whatever industry has kept them going, left to fend for themselves, lost, broke and frightened. Until – hurrah! – they’re saved, thanks to their plucky can-do attitudes and a sense of community… Miners saved by joining a brass band, steelworkers redeemed by stripping, you know how it goes. And yeah, it’s all very inspiring, but somehow it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, because what’s it saying? That our government doesn’t owe us a duty of care; we just need to dig deep enough, try hard enough, find our own way out of the mire? I don’t buy it.

But I really like this film, written by Neil McKay and directed by Euros Lyn. I just do. I’m not really expecting to, but I can’t help myself. My heartstrings are well and truly tugged.

It’s very, very Welsh. And, as a Welsh person who no longer lives in Wales, I find myself filling up as Katherine Jenkins sings Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the crowds at the racecourse joining in, and when the Cefn Fforest locals line the streets, singing Bread of Heaven. There’s quite a lot of singing, actually – which is no bad thing.

The plot is no great shakes. It’s based on the true story of supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette), her unemployed husband, ‘Daisy’ (Owen Teale), and city accountant Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), who make a plan to breed their own racehorse. Jan has experience of breeding greyhounds and pigeons, and Howard has previously owned a racehorse – which was so expensive it nearly cost him both his home and his marriage. But they’re all trapped and fed up, and this plan offers them a glimmer of hope. However, they can’t afford it alone. And so the syndicate is born, and – although only twenty-three people actually commit to stumping up the ten pounds a week required for part-ownership – it seems like the whole village is invested in the group’s success.

First, the Vokes buy an injured mare named Rewbell. Then, they breed her to Bien Bien, a thoroughbred stallion. The resulting foal is Dream Alliance, owned by the syndicate, and trained by Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell). Howard warns the syndicate that they are unlikely to make much money from their horse – that they have to be “in it for the hwyl,” not financial gain. This proves to be wise advice. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Dream Alliance becomes a relative success (because it would be a very different kind of movie if the venture were a flop), but no one makes more than a couple of grand. The hwyl though. The hwyl. That’s life-changing.

There’s such a lot of hope in this film, such a lot of joy. The importance of simple camaraderie, of sharing a goal, of feeling part of something; it’s all writ large here. Kerby (Karl Johnson) is a shambling alcoholic until the syndicate gives him new hope; widow Maureen (the inimitable Siân Phillips) finally has something other than Tunnock’s teacakes (delicious thought they are) to divert her. The whole crew take a minibus to the races and crash into the owners’ bar, claiming their place among the elite with their heads held high. It’s glorious. And there is, genuinely, some real suspense in those final furlongs.

If you’re looking for something to raise your spirits, Dream Horse is it.

Enjoy. Mae’n grêt.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

A Quiet Place: Part Two

04/05/21

Cineworld

A Quiet Place was, in many ways, an extraordinary film. The levels of tension it generated led to a new phenomenon in multiplexes across the world – audiences actually being afraid to munch their popcorn or slurp their soft drinks too loudly, for fear of attracting those audio-activated monsters to their auditorium. The main question in my mind when a second instalment was mooted was simply this: can they possibly hope to pull off the trick for a second time? Well, to a large degree, they have, and this despite the fact that (spoiler alert!) a major character was killed off at the end of the first movie.

Part Two opens with a flashback to Day One of the alien invasion, as Lee Abbott (writer/director/actor John Krasinski) wanders to a baseball game in his hometown, where his son, Marcus (Noah Jupe), is just about to step up to the plate. Then there’s some commotion in the skies above them and, before you can yell, ‘Scarper!” those nasty reptiles arrive on the scene and start killing people. All hell breaks loose and the focus moves from Lee to his daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds). We see much of the ensuing carnage through her viewpoint. Long sequences are enacted in total silence – Regan is hearing impaired – and with brilliant use of this device, the resulting action is a masterclass of impeccable timing and effective jump-scares.

Then we cut back to where we left off in Part One. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her three children – one of them a newborn baby – are forced to wander off the silent path they’ve so painstakingly built to go in search of other survivors. Eventually they find one in the shape of Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a former friend of Lee’s, a man who is himself mourning the death of his wife and children. Can Evelyn persuade to forget his misery long enough to help her? And what’s the point if life is going to be the miserable existence that they’re all toiling through?

Well, the thing is, Regan has this cunning plan, one she’s convinced can give humans a competitive edge over the creatures that have invaded their planet. But making it work isn’t going to be easy…

Once again, the AQP team manage to raise the suspense to almost unbearable levels and at times I find myself holding my breath as the next nail-biting sequence unfolds. Okay, so this time out, there are a few implausibilities in the mix. In quieter moments, I find myself asking questions like, ‘Do these guys ever get to eat anything?’ Or, ‘How can Evelyn generate enough milk for that baby if she’s not getting any nutrition?’ and ‘How come the aliens only ever (okay, usually) arrive one at a time?’

And… while I’m being picky, Krasinski does pitch us a few too many cross-cut sequences where what’s happening in one scene mirrors the action in another one happening miles away. The first time you see it, it’s really impressive, but Part 2 is a little over-reliant on this conceit. And… if I’m really honest, the central message about the children needing to measure up to their fearless father is hammered home a little too forcefully for comfort.

But look, here’s the bottom line. As an immersive cinematic experience, A Quiet Place: Part Two does deliver on its main mission to thoroughly terrorise viewers – and that’s this series’ raison d’etre, surely? Emily Mortimer’s recent announcement that AQP is going to be a trilogy makes me sigh a little. Hardly anyone ever manages a successful hat trick, but of course, that’s all somewhere in the future. We’ll see.

For now, why not pop along to your socially distanced cinema and raise your stress levels even more than they already are? Come on, you know you want to.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Cruella

02/05/21

Cineworld

When Disney announced this release, my anticipation barely registered on the ‘need to see’ scale. I mean, ho hum, how good can an origin story for a two-dimensional Disney character be, anyway?

The answer is: very good indeed. It only takes ten minutes or so to convince me that this is, in fact, a brilliant notion – and indeed, Cruella is genuinely the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since the reopening of these hallowed portals (admittedly, it’s only been a few weeks). While it might not fully explain why a seemingly lovely woman would turn into a puppy-hating psychopath, it’s nonetheless an absolute delight from start to finish, featuring eye-popping haute couture, a superb ensemble cast and all backed up by a soundtrack of stone cold 60s classics from the Stones to the Zombies. What’s not to like?

Our story begins in the 1950s, with the birth of Estella Miller, a child with shockingly distinctive hair. It’s not long before she’s grown a bit and is making a name for herself at school – as a cocksure, arrogant rebel with total self-belief. She never fails to fuel the ire of her teachers and fellow pupils. Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) harbours a burning ambition. She longs to be a fashion designer just like her idol, the infamous Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella also has a dark side – a character her Mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), calls ‘Cruella,’ and who she insists must be kept hidden from the world. However, when her daughter is thrown out of yet another school, Catherine resolves to take her to London where she’ll have a chance of achieving the career she longs for. But the two of them must first make a brief stop en route…

Then, in a bizarre twist of fate – one that I really can’t give away – Estella is orphaned and she falls in with a couple of artful dodgers, who introduce her to a life of crime in the big city and who also provide her with some much-needed companionship. Before very long (the film seems to hurtle along at a breathless pace), it’s the swinging 60s. Estella has grown up to be Emma Stone and her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) have somehow managed to wangle her at job at Liberty’s of London… okay, so she’s only cleaning toilets, but you have to start from the bottom, right?

And then her talents come to the attention of The Baroness herself and Estella’s life takes a massive step up. Now she is being called upon to create a whole series of stunning designs for the The Baroness’s fashion house, designs that her new employer is only too happy to take all the credit for.

But how long before the dark persona hidden inside this ambitious young woman comes clawing her way back to the surface, intent on grabbing the limelight for herself?

What ensues is a delicious war between Cruella and The Baroness. Stone is effortlessly cool both as Cruella and as her slightly more subdued other half, handling an upper crust English accent with aplomb and looking like she’s setting the screen ablaze with the merest smirk. Thompson is wonderfully evil, making Meryl Streep’s turn in the inferior The Devil Wears Prada (a film that Cruella shares some DNA with) look positively cuddly by comparison. Thompson is also very funny in the role.

As the decade hurtles towards the 70s, so the fashions become ever more trashy (bin lorry chic anyone?) and the cinematic jukebox offers us the likes of The Clash and ELO. Seriously, you’ll be dancing in your seat. All we need is a big, brash conclusion and, happily, director Craig Gillespie dutifully gives us one, pulling all the final strands together in great style.

Oh, and don’t get up too soon. There’s a gentle post-credits coda that features a sly nod to Disney’s 1961 original.

I really had the lowest possible expectations for Cruella, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong.

This film is a blast.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Frankie

01/06/21

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Frankie had its premiere at Cannes in 2019 and, for obvious reasons, has been waiting ever since for a UK release. Finally, here it is in all its underwhelming glory. Starring the seemingly ageless Isabelle Huppert in the title role, this is the story of a successful film and TV actor (so no stretch there) who, when she finds herself stricken by incurable cancer, summons her extended family for one last vacation in Sintra, an idyllic beach location in Portugal.

She’s accompanied by (amongst others) her husband, Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her wayward son, Paul (Jérémie Renier), her former husband, Michel (Pascal Greggory), and her close friend, Ilene (Marisa Tomei), who, we are told, works in the film industry, currently on Star Wars. Frankie appears to be hatching a scheme to matchmake Paul and Ilene, so it’s a bit of a nuisance when she turns up with a boyfriend in tow, cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear) – and even more of problem when he proposes. But Frankie is skilled at manipulating the lives of those who love her and she likes nothing so much as a challenge…

Ira Sach’s languorous film is a melancholy affair that sets a bunch characters down in an idyllic location, and then fails to give them enough to do. They interact with each other, but no great drama is generated through their conversations and not much in the way of interest, either. Frankie is a siren figure, the brilliant star around which all the others circle like satellites. As Jimmy says in a key moment, he cannot really envisage any sort of life ‘after Frankie’ and nor, it seems, can the rest of them. But is this enough to create a satisfying movie? Well, no, not really, especially when some of the characters remain enigmas.

Frankie’s daughter, Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), for instance, is going through a separation from her husband, Ian (Ariyon Bakare), but we’re never really sure why – and we learn even less about their teenage daughter, Maya (Sennia Nanua), other than the fact that she likes to spend time on the beach. (But then, who doesn’t, especially in a place like Sintra?) Huppert is as enigmatic as ever, giving an almost ethereal performance – although for somebody succumbing to the ravages of cancer, she appears to be in perfect health.

Ultimately, this is pleasant enough, but it fails to kindle enoughof sparks to set the proceedings alight.

2.9 stars

Philip Caveney