Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

In the Heights

18/06/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning stage musical makes a successful transition to the big screen, with Jon M Chu’s direction really capturing the community spirit at the heart of the piece. Washington Heights is a Manhattan suburb, home to a diverse range of Latin-American people. The film is a raucous celebration of Latinx culture, and – although it touches briefly on issues of poverty, racism and immigration – it’s essentially joyful: a sweet love story; “there’s no place like home.”

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a corner store/bodega, who dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s beach bar. He’s got a bit of a thing for Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works in a nail salon, although she really wants to be a fashion designer. Meanwhile, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has come back home from Stanford University for the summer, and – though the whole-neighbourhood’s in awe of her achievements – she’s decided not to return. The grass isn’t always greener, and she misses belonging. At Stanford, she will always be an outsider.

Christopher Scott’s choreography is sublime: it’s vibrant and sexy and sometimes dizzyingly gorgeous. The huge ensemble cast are expertly utilised. There’s a scene on the fire escape that almost literally takes my breath away, and the Busby Berkeley-esque synchronised swimming provides another unexpected delight. The cinematography (by Chu and Alice Brooks) is also spectacular: you can feel the heat rising from every shot, shimmering and crackling, and – during the blackout – it’s genuinely oppressive. The neighbourhood is fully realised, and captured with love.

The film is long; some might say too long. Even though it’s bursting with energy and sparky, likeable characters, it does start to flag at around the eighty-minute mark, and there’s still more than an hour to go. A little tightening wouldn’t go amiss, but – in spite of this – watching In the Heights is, on the whole, a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Although I’m captivated, I sadly find myself at odds with the film’s underlying message, which seems to be an exhortation to appreciate what you have and stay put. I love the community pride that is feted so exuberantly here, but I’m also perturbed by the ‘don’t try anything new’ connotation, which literally nobody gets to challenge. It feels right for Usnavi to realise that home is where the heart is, that he already has exactly what he needs, but the same doesn’t ring true for Vanessa – or Nina. I wish there was more nuance here.

I’d probably like a bit more grit too, if I’m honest. The racism Nina encounters at Stanford is delivered almost as an aside; the plight of DREAMers only briefly touched upon. These are urgent, interesting topics, and there’s space here, I think, for a little more depth, more heft. As it is, In the Heights is lovely, but ephemeral. I can’t see it lingering in my mind, or having a lasting impact.

Still, if what you’re seeking is escapism, this movie more than ticks the box.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Kitchin

16/06/21

Commercial Quay, Leith

A 50th birthday celebration is a great excuse to push the boat out – and the fact is, we’ve been trying to visit The Kitchin ever since we first moved to Edinburgh, some five years ago. We’ve managed to dine at all the other Tom Kitchin restaurants over that time: The Scran and Scallie, The Southside Scran and even The Bonnie Badger out in Gullane, but, mostly because of our complete inability to organise booking months ahead of time, we’ve never been able to find a suitable slot at his flagship venue. Until today.

It’s the sixteenth of June and we’re sitting at a table in The Kitchin, sipping our welcome glasses of champagne. The place is swish and comfortable and, though busy, it’s socially distanced enough for us to feel relaxed. We’ve walked the three miles from home to Commerical Quay, so we’ve managed to work up a decent appetite en route. On the other side of a glass partition, we can see Tom himself, hard at work on his latest masterpiece. We’ve opted for the Chef’s ‘Surprise’ menu, which means that we won’t know what we’re having until it arrives. The waiter gives us ample opportunity to rule out any ingredients we have an aversion to, but the fact is, we like most things and part of the thrill of dining at this level is to hand over control to the seasoned professionals on the other side of that screen.

We’ve also opted for the matched wines. This is going to be pricy, but hey, you’re only fifty once, right?

We start with an amuse bouche – a Swedish potato and seafood cake, which is essentially a little mouthful of salty heaven and a great way to get the old taste buds woken up. Goes well with the champagne too.

This is followed by a pea and lovage velouté, intensely flavoured but light as you like and we cannot resist mopping up that rich, green sauce with handfuls of freshly made soda bread. ‘Go easy on the bread,’ I keep telling myself, but I just somehow can’t make myself do that.

A glass of wine arrives (I’m not going to list all the wines, suffice to say that they are expertly paired with each dish), and then we’re presented with scallops in puff pastry. These are cooked in their shells and sealed with a ring of pastry, so they have to be opened up by the waiter, revealing melt-in-the-mouth tender scallops floating in a vibrant, citrus-infused sauce. If there’s a standout for me in this list of knockout dishes, this may just be it. But happily it proves to be a close-run thing.

Another glass of wine arrives, and then our next dish. This is pork cheek with truffle and asparagus, ladled with béchamel sauce and it’s every bit as good as it sounds. Truffle can be overpowering but not so here – there’s just enough of it to lend an extra burst of flavour, while the pork cheek is tender and expertly spiced.

The next dish is John Dory with fennel and it’s a bit of a revelation, this one. For one thing, I’ve never eaten John Dory before and I have to say that I enjoy the experience; the white flaky fish is deliciously seasoned. Also, I’d be the first to admit that fennel has never been my favourite food, but this is cooked in a tangy lemon sauce and is absolutely delicious. I vow that the next time I cook with fennel, I’m going to try a similar approach.

A switch to red wine signals what is no doubt intended as the main course in this menu, lamb rib, loin and jus – though, like all the other dishes, it is perfectly proportioned, because we still have a way to go on this food odyssey. An earthy Lebanese wine makes the ideal accompaniment to the succulent meat, which is ladled with a rich, marrowbone gravy. In a vain attempt to be critical, I observe that the first mouthful of lamb is chewier than I anticipate, but that’s the only criticism I manage to summon up. The second and third mouthfuls are fine.

We’re expecting our pudding around now, but out comes an extra one, just because they can, and this is an oat mousse with strawberry jus, light, intensely flavoured and just the thing to cut through the lingering notes of the meat dish we’ve recently finished. Think of it as a delicious palette cleanser.

Now comes the actual pudding and seriously, this is just perfection in a bowl, an apple crumble soufflé that features all the flavour of the traditional favourite, but is so light and fluffy that it almost threatens to float away from our spoons. The apple is just tart enough to cut through the sweetness of the soufflé and I have to resist the impulse to applaud. This is up there with B & B’s all-time favourite pud, Mark Greenaway’s sticky toffee pudding soufflé.

Just when we’re telling ourselves that we can’t possibly eat another thing, out comes a little lemon birthday cake with a candle on the top, and we happily share it, before ordering some coffee.

There can’t be any more… can there? Well, yes there can, actually, because here’s a dainty chocolate almond financier and I challenge anyone to turn a blind eye to that when sipping a latte! I know we couldn’t.

So, that’s it, we’re finally done. We’ve been here for something like two and a half hours, we’ve eaten some extraordinary food, we’ve drunk quite a bit of wine (so sue us) and we can honestly say this is a meal so special, so unique, we’ll never ever forget it.

And that’s the object of the exercise, right?

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Nobody

15/06/21

Cineworld

Since the success of Liam Neeson’s Taken, there’s been a trend for mature actors reinventing themselves as superannuated action heroes. The latest to throw his toupee into the ring is Bob Odenkirk (better known to many as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad). Here he plays Hutch Mansell, the ‘Nobody’ of the title and, in a series of rapid fire clips, we’re shown just how ordinary his everyday existence is. Married to Becca (Connie Neilsen), with a couple of young kids to support, his biggest concern seems to be getting the household garbage out on time for the weekly pickup. You know. An ordinary guy with an ordinary job and an ordinary past.

But a household burglary intrudes upon his routine and the fact that the thieves steal his little girl’s Kitty Kat bracelet makes him snap – whereupon we learn that Hutch isn’t quite as ordinary as he seems. He is a former ‘auditor’ for the FBI, a man adept at using his fists and a variety of weapons to lethal effect – which he now proceeds to do with unwholesome relish, first by taking on a bunch of bullies who have the misfortune to get onto the same bus as him and latterly, by taking on Russian mobster Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov), a man who is no stranger to violence himself and who seems to have half the Russian population of America at his beck and call.

Nobody is decently acted and glossily filmed and it has a penchant for putting Vegas-style ballads behind the action sequences, which sometimes works to good effect – but what’s utterly repugnant about this film is the neanderthal subtext, the suggestion that a man cannot be truly happy unless he’s driving a broken bottle into another man’s face. Even more insulting is the notion that women secretly respect this – a scene where Becca responds sexually to Hutch, after years of abstinence, because he has reinvented himself as a ‘tough guy’ is pretty much the final straw. All the female characters here are either silent victims or, like Becca, they respond to the overtures of a ‘real man’.

It’s 2021 for Christ’s sake! This kind of nonsense would have seemed hopelessly outdated back in 2008, when Taken was originally released, but now you wonder how anybody could be so insensitive as to create something so morally reprehensible. (Derek Kolstad, step forward and accept the Misogynist of the Year prize.) Odenkirk must also carry some of the blame, since his production company is behind this farrago.

As the film progresses (if I can use that verb), the mayhem becomes ever more over-amped and ridiculous, as Hutch – aided by his aged dad, David (Christopher Lloyd), and the mysterious Harry (RZA) -takes on hordes of Russian hitmen, none of whom appear to have had any weapons training and who are summarily beaten, shot, stabbed and blown to smithereens. Kolstad, of course, created the character of John Wick and that franchise is no stranger to extended fight scenes, but here the prolonged action just becomes monotonous, as limbs are snapped, eyes gouged out and bodies blown to pulp.

By this time, I’m just praying for it to end – and don’t get me started on the film’s ludicrous conclusion, which appears to be hoping for another instalment of this drivel. The most depressing thought of all is that Nobody might just succeed in that ambition.

1 star

Philip Caveney

Bo Burnham: Inside

13/06/21

Netflix

Bo Burnham is what you might call a polymath – a man of wide-ranging talents. He acts; he writes; he sings; he plays maddeningly catchy music. He’s extraordinary! He’s also been around for quite a while (he first started performing comedy as a teenager), but I, sadly, have only recently become aware of him. He’s the writer/director behind the bittersweet coming-of-age movie, Eighth Grade, which Bouquets and Brickbats awarded a well-deserved 4.8 stars in 2019. More recently, he submitted a perfectly-judged performance as Ryan in Promising Young Woman. And he has three comedy specials on Netflix, the latest of which is Inside.

Like everyone else in recent history, Burnham found himself trapped at home by the pandemic. Shortly before being locked down, he’d been afflicted by crippling bouts of stage fright. Also, he was about to turn thirty, and he needed to talk to somebody about that situation.

So he wrote, directed and performed a one-hour-twenty-seven-minute piece that all takes place in one room of his house. Of course he did. He’s a polymath.

It can sometimes be hard to write about comedy, but this show is particularly hard to pin down, because it careens frantically from one routine to the next, all of them stitched together by a stream of perceptive, oddly Beatle-ish songs, each one of which seizes on a particular subject and brilliantly eviscerates it. Whether he’s commenting on the all-pervasive overload of the internet, spoofing a children’s show where a sock puppet is revealed to be a submissive slave to his human counterpart, offering a commentary on the kind of fluff that masquerades as emotion on Instagram, or exposing the raging narcissism that lurks at the root of every comedian’s output, this is never less than fascinating. It’s wry, self-deprecating – and sometimes shocking. Occasionally it dares to stand on the very edge of a precipitous ledge, staring down into the abyss.

Comedy is subjective, of course, but – having watched this – I was prompted to catch up on his two previous Netflix specials and to note how his work – though always first rate – has matured over the eight years, from what. (2013), through Make Happy (2016) to Inside (2021). This latest piece represents him at the very peak of his powers. Where he will go next is debatable – there is some talk of him pursuing a movie career but, if that is the case, I hope he doesn’t give up on what he’s doing here.

Which is being brilliantly, irreverently funny. And if there’s something we all need right now, it’s more laughter.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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

Army of the Dead

28/05/21

Netflix

‘It’s fast, it’s frantic and above all, it’s fun to watch.’

That’s what I said about Train to Busan. Unfortunately, this is Army of the Dead and, though the expertly-edited trailer suggests that this could be up there with Sang-ho Yeon’s movie, the end result is frankly not in the same league. This is a film by Zack Snyder.

Snyder has previous form in this genre. His 2004 reworking of George Romero’s horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty good. It was the film that originated the idea that the undead didn’t have to shuffle along like… well, zombies, but could hurtle after their prey like Mo Farah on steroids. This might not sound like much but, in its own way, it was a bit of a game-changer. Of course, over the intervening years, Snyder has pursued a path of making his films bigger, louder and er… longer. Sadly, Army of the Dead is no exception. To be fair, it opens brilliantly. The title sequence galumphs merrily along to a jaunty tune, and manages to convey the film’s entire back story in a blood-spattered nutshell.

But then the titles end and we realise we’ve still got got two hours and twenty six minutes to go…

Former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) has been a major part in saving the world from a zombie epidemic. His reward is a dead-end job, flipping burgers in a cafe. He’s understandably miffed. Then, he’s approached by Casino owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Tanaka), who informs him of millions in dollars in cash, locked up in a vault beneath Las Vegas. The only problem is, the place is currently a walled-off zone, housing all the remaining zombies from a disastrous outbreak, and it’s due to be tactically nuked in a few days’ time. Would Scott be prepared to assemble a squad of former associates and head into the city to ‘liberate’ the money? He can keep fifty million and divide it up however he wants.

Before you can say “Hmm, sounds risky,’ Scott has his team assembled and is heading into Las Vegas intent on setting himself and his friends up for a more prosperous future. He has a way in. His estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), works in a detention centre right next to the barricades. Scott and Ella are distant, mostly because Scott had to push a knife into his wife (Ella’s mother)’s brain back in the day, but, to be fair, she was turning in to a zombie. So here’s the ideal opportunity to reconnect.

Anyhow, in the mercenaries go and we’re all set for a taut, exciting bloodfest, right?

But no, Snyder wants to take every opportunity to establish his characters. It doesn’t help that they are a fairly tedious bunch, who seem incapable of making the right decision in any given situation. They say things that no real person would ever say, have a predilection for making bad jokes at importune moments, and an attempt to play up a feminist angle for Lily (Nora Arnezeder) is woefully misjudged. The most interesting of the characters is undoubtedly safe-cracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöff), but a plot hole the size of Nevada means that there’s no logical reason for him to to be on the team in the first place.

But what really weighs this down is the film’s lack of pace. Busan threw its characters headlong through a whole series of frantic set-pieces, hardly giving an audience the chance to take a collective breath, but Army takes us along at a slow trudge, with too many tedious stops along the way. Snyder always has a great eye as cinematographer – indeed, I suspect this is where his true talents lie. The world building here is skilfully done and the renderings of a devastated Las Vegas are spot on. There are also some stirring action sequences, including a thrill-packed helicopter flight, towards the end.

But it’s not enough to salvage the dead weight of what’s gone before. An odd conclusion (with another gigantic plot hole) seems to be setting up for a sequel but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on Snyder’s part.

In short, this zombie film is ultimately toothless – and it sucks.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney