Author: bobthebiker

Capernaum

03/02/19

Capernaum opens with a scene that could have been lifted straight from a mawkish Hollywood weepie. Twelve year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is attempting to sue his parents. Their crime? They have given him life and it has turned out to be one of unrelenting misery. If this device seems sensational, stay in your seat – because from here the film cuts away to show us Zain’s existence on the streets of Beirut, and it isn’t long before we’re pretty much in agreement that he’s been dealt a bad hand of cards.

Zain lives cheek by jowl in a tiny run down apartment with his eight siblings. The children are all forced to participate in the money-making schemes of their desperate parents, which largely revolve around forging prescriptions for Tramadol and distributing the drug to various relatives housed in the local prison. These scenes are explored with almost documentarian attention to detail, plunging me headlong into harrowing poverty and desperation and making me supremely grateful for my own comfortable existence. The actors are all non-professionals, which adds to the sense of verité.

When Zain isn’t dealing drugs, or selling fruit drinks on the street, he’s fetching and carrying and trying to look out for his eldest sister, Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izza), who has just started menstruating and, at the tender age of eleven, is therefore considered a promising matrimonial prospect for Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the man who owns the property in which the family live. So no pressure there.

When, in one of the film’s most devastating sequences, the family is forced to hand Sahar over to Assaad, Zain reaches breaking point and runs away from home. Finding himself in a ramshackle fairground, he is taken in by Ethiopian immigrant, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who gives Zain food and shelter in exchange for him babysitting her infant son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). But Rahil is working in Beirut on forged papers and, when she is arrested, Zain is, quite literally, left holding the baby. His life now consists of finding food and water in order to keep Yonas alive.

This is a harrowing and deeply affecting story, centred around a truly extraordinary performance from Zain Al Rafeea. He trudges resolutely through an onslaught of slings and arrows, looking for all the world like a glum-faced angel – indeed, the moment where he finally locates his smile is almost transcendental. His scenes with the (adorable) baby are also beautifully judged, even though they amp the anxiety factor up to the maximum. Complex issues are brilliantly explored with plenty of nuance and subtlety and, for the most part, the film is not judgemental. Zain’s parents are not the evil caricatures they could so easily have been, but people driven to extraordinary measures in order to survive.

So it’s a shame, then, that the film’s final message – that poor people should have fewer kids – is over-simplistic and only partially explained by the fact that it’s essentially a child’s-eye view of the situation. We all know, don’t we, that the problem is far more complicated than that?

But Nadine Labaki’s film is an undeniably powerful one and it’s no surprise that it’s been nominated for this year’s foreign Language Oscar. It’s also the latest in a whole series of movies that have me weeping inconsolably in my seat. Capernaum may not be perfect but I defy anyone to sit through this and not feel moved by it.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

02/02/19

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a fascinating tale, as much about the spurious nature of ‘worth’ as it is a personal memoir of triumph and degradation. We enter the obscure world of literary memorabilia, where trite postcards or carelessly dashed-off letters command big bucks, just so long as they’re written by a person of note. A thank you card from Noël Coward? That’ll be six hundred dollars, please. And if Coward didn’t actually write it? Well, what’s the difference, really?

Lee Israel, played here with real aplomb by Melissa McCarthy, is a biographer, justifiably proud of her published work, but dismayed to see her stock falling. Having hit the dizzy heights of the New York Times Best Sellers list with her 1980 book about Dorothy Killigan, she’s devastated when her next project, about Estée Lauder, is a flop. Her bitchy agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), stops taking her calls, and laughs openly at Lee’s ideas for future work. Unable to afford the vet’s fees for her beloved cat – or, indeed, to pay her rent – Lee starts to look for other ways to turn a buck.

Israel is a complex character: prickly, tough-talking and isolated, proud of her abilities but unsure of how to make them pay. She’s not especially likeable: she drinks too much; she’s sarcastic; her apartment is filthy and covered in cat shit. And, when the going gets tough, she turns to crime. It’s to McCarthy’s great credit that she imbues the troubled author with enough pathos and vulnerability that we find ourselves rooting for her, willing her to find a way out of her situation. This is helped in some measure by Israel’s putative (and fictional) relationship with a sweet-natured bookseller, Anna (Dolly Wells), which allows us to see how self-destructive Israel is, and how lonely she makes herself.

Still, every crook needs a partner in crime, and Israel’s is Jack Hock, a drinking buddy with whom she develops a friendship of sorts. It’s great to see Richard E. Grant back in a role he can relish (because, let’s face it, he’s not been given much to get his teeth into since Withnail), and he certainly makes the most of the opportunity to show off his acting chops. This is true of McCarthy too, whose performance here has far more depth and subtlety than most of the rumbustious comedic turns she’s previously been noted for.

Israel’s aptitude for forgery is rooted in her real writing skills, and she takes a perverse pride in possessing a wit caustic enough to pass for Dorothy Parker’s, arch enough to pass for Coward’s. There’s a sense here of a woman taking revenge on a literary world that has spurned her, exposing the stupidity of the very people who say she’s not good enough. Director Marielle Heller does a good job of quietly teasing out these themes, and the film is tightly constructed, with every scene earning its place.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a first-rate movie and one which is, ironically, likely to make the value of an authentic Lee Israel forgery soar. Now, where can I get hold of a typewriter?

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Green Book

31/01/19

It’s 1962, and at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York, Italian American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a doorman/bouncer. Known as an ace exponent of BS – and also for being very handy with his fists – Tony finds himself in a bit of a fix when the club is unexpectedly closed for renovations. How is he going to support his loving wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and his two sons (one of whom is destined to grow up to be a Hollywood scriptwriter?)

Salvation comes in the form of an unexpected job offer. Celebrated musician, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), is planning to embark on a three month tour of America and, since he intends to appear in several venues south of the Mason Dixon line, he needs somebody to drive him – somebody who can handle himself in a tight spot. Tony seems like the logical choice.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Tony, you see, is a racist. Not a confederate flag-waving agitator or anything like that, but a man who chooses to drop a couple of drinking glasses into the trash after they’ve been used by black workmen who do some work in his apartment.

However, he’s also a pragmatist. He needs a job and this one will pay well, provided he gets his client to every single booking, so off the two men go in a hired Cadillac, using the titular Green Book to locates those rare hotels that are actually prepared to admit black guests.

On their travels, the two men’s relationship gradually develops into mutual respect and, as Tony witnesses the humiliating travails that Don has to undergo in those Southern states, the more he begins to understand how wrong he’s been for all these years. Here is a country where the man who has been booked as the star turn at a swanky establishment is unable to dine in the restaurant or even use the same toilet as the other (white) guests.

Of course, this could so easily become trite and over sentimental – but the script, written by Nick Vallelonga, successfully walks a perilous tightrope over the potential pitfalls. It is often downright hilarious and, when it needs to be, suitably heartfelt. Peter Farrelly (yes, that Peter Farrelly, the one who wrote Dumb and Dumber!) handles the direction with perfectly judged restraint. Mortensen, who has beefed up almost beyond recognition, is terrific as Tony, a man whom I initially dislike intensely, but who gradually works his way into my affections with his brutish attempts at humour.

It’s Ali, however, who is the real standout here, managing to imbue his effete character with an affecting vulnerability. Don, it turns out, is a stranger both to the white world in which he plies his trade and the black one, of which he ironically has little experience. Sitting in his swanky apartment above Carnegie Hall, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one in which Tony introduces him to the music of Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin – and then to the dubious delights of Kentucky fried chicken. I should also add that Linda Cardellini makes the very most of her limited screen time as Dolores, imbuing her character with real warmth.

Of course, this being based on a true story, there have been some rumblings of discontent, mostly from Don Shirley’s surviving relatives,  who claim that the friendship between the two men has been wildly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. This may be true but, whatever the realties of the situation, Green Book is nonetheless a terrific film that never loses momentum, despite a running time of two hours and ten minutes.

It fully deserves its five Oscar nominations. Go and see this, if only to remind yourself of how recently the horrors of segregation held sway in the American South – and, of course, to watch those two knockout performances.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

If Beale Street Could Talk

28/01/18

After the meteoric success of 2016’s Moonlight (only his second attempt at direction), Barry Jenkins could probably have chosen any subject he fancied for his third feature. As it turned out, he’d already begun developing If Beale Street Could Talk at the same time as his Osar winner, adapting it himself from a groundbreaking novel by James Baldwin, so of course it was a logical step to move straight on to that. Set in the early 1970s, it’s a stylish slow burner that centres on the doomed relationship of two young people.

Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) has known Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) since the two of them were kids. She’s the youngest daughter of a loving and supportive family and is still based at home, while he’s become more of a loner, living in a rundown basement where he’s trying to establish himself as a sculptor. (His work, it must be said, is spectacularly underwhelming). When romance finally blooms between Tish and Fonny, it seems almost inevitable that they will end up as man and wife – but when he is wrongfully accused of rape and sent to prison, she discovers that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child; and all their hopes for the future come tumbling down around them.

Jenkins takes his own sweet time over the narrative, skipping back and forth in chronology to hone in on key points in the couple’s relationship. We also spend time with Tish and Fonny’s respective parents and in particular, we focus on Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King) and her increasingly desperate attempts to prove Fonny’s innocence by travelling to Puerto Rico to confront the poor woman who has mistakenly identified Fonnyas her assailent. King’s performance has garnered the film a ‘best supporting actress’ Oscar nomination, along with Nicholas Britell’s score and Jenkins’ for best adapted screenplay. But this is essentially Tish and Fonny’s story and the two leads play their roles with absolute conviction.

There’s a rich, languorous intensity about If Beale Street Could Talk that really takes us inside the central characters, revealing everything we need to know about them and the way they relate to each other. If the glacial pace occasionally palls – the scenes where Fonny reconnects with his old friend Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) could have benefited from a little pruning – this is nonetheless a considerable achievement and something that in these times of short attention spans, we are rarely witness to. This puts me in mind of the films of the late, great Douglas Sirk, who worked in a similar way.

I love the film’s brutal honesty, refusing point blank to offer us anything resembling a convenient conclusion, pointing out that real life rarely comes with such luxuries attached – and for a young black man in America, justice is a commodity that’s very hard to find.

This may not be the absolute knockout that Moonlight was, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing and beautifully directed film that deserves the widest attention.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Touching the Void

26/01/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I have to confess that my first thought when I see this production advertised is, ‘How the hell are they ever going to put this on a stage?’

Anyone who has read Joe Simpson’s true account of his disastrous misadventure in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 – or seen Kevin MacDonald’s subsequent documentary – will know that Touching the Void is an epic story of adventure and survival against all the odds, with most of the action taking place on the remote peaks of an icebound mountain. The Lyceum has a reputation for inventive staging, but it’s clear from the get-go that this production will necessitate designer Ti Green and his crew to pull out all the stops.

David Greig’s canny adaptation begins – rather disturbingly for those who know the story – in a climber’s pub in Glencoe, where Joe Simpson’s sister, Sarah (Fiona Hampton), welcomes us all to her brother’s wake. She tells us she’s forgotten to make sandwiches and then cranks up the jukebox with a few eighties classics. Joe’s climbing partner, Simon (Edward Hayter), turns up, accompanied by the nerdy Richard (Patrick McNamee), the young man who served as assistant on Simon and Joe’s recent climb, and Sarah asks them for more information about what happened up on the mountain.

Simon begins by trying to explain the allure of mountain climbing by literally showing Sarah the ropes. They start small, by ascending an upended dining table, but pretty soon they are using ropes and winches to scramble up the sides of the proscenium arch. Sarah is astonished to find that she is enjoying the experience, but she still wants to know more…

And then Joe (Josh Williams) appears and, at the rear of the stage, a representation of the Peruvian mountain rears slowly into position so that Joe and Simon can re-enact their climb.

This is the point where the audience’s disbelief must be fully suspended if this is going to work – and I’m happy to report that it doeswork, quite brilliantly. Clambering about on a haphazard construction of metal and paper, the actors somehow manage to generate extraordinary levels of suspense, leading inexorably to the point where disaster occurs. It’s a heart-stopping moment, simply but convincingly staged.

If the play’s second half doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of the first, it is perhaps because it chooses to focus on the concept of solitude as a badly injured Joe is faced with the Herculean task of dragging himself back to base camp, accompanied only by a hallucinated version of Sarah, whose method of encouragement consists mostly of repeatedly whacking her brother’s broken leg with an ice axe. The characters of Simon and Richard are largely forgotten here and it might have helped to involve them a little more in the proceedings. Simon in particular seems poorly served. We never really share the feelings of guilt he must have had over what happened – indeed, we find out very little about what lurks behind his impassive expression.

That said, the story’s powerful conclusion, where we finally see the true grandeur of the mountain itself is undeniably exhilarating, and the four actors fully deserve their enthusiastic applause.

We’re all familiar with that famous quote about climbing a mountain ‘because it’s there.’ This production seems to live by a similar ethos, fearlessly tackling a subject that few theatre-makers would dare to attempt and, for the most part, taking it to dizzy heights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Glasgow Girls

23/01/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

If you were told you were going to see a play about asylum seekers threatened with deportation, I doubt you’d imagine an exuberant production, but that’s exactly what Glasgow Girls is. A vibrant, pulsing, emotional whirl of a musical, with a vital message and a warm, fierce heart.

The girls in question are real: this piece, written by David Greig and directed by Cora Bissett, is based on their real struggles, their real lives.   They’re a disparate group, hailing from Somalia and Poland, Iraq and Kosovo, but they all end up in Glasgow’s Drumchapel High School. Here, they are brought together via Mr Girvan (Callum Cuthbertson)’s ESL class and, when Agnesa (Chiara Sparkes) – a Roma refugee from Kosovo – is threatened with deportation, they learn that the local community is on their side. As local matriarch, Noreen (Terry Neason), tells us, the working classes are often lazily depicted as racist or bigoted, but here the girls find true allies, prepared to pay far more than lip service to their cause.

The music makes sense: these are teenagers, as loud and demanding as they ought to be, with strong opinions and clear beliefs. If something’s wrong, they want to put it right. Theirs is, fundamentally, a simple tale. They are Scotland’s children now. And they are clearly shown here as more than just their troubled pasts, as more than numbers, more than problems, or outsiders. They’re people, with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, and surely – surely? – the same right to live good lives.

So of course they sing; of course they dance – why wouldn’t they? And the music complements the story well. There are upbeat, sassy, kick-ass songs and sombre ballads to temper them. The immigration officials’ robotic sequences are cleverly handled, and the voices are all commanding, bold as well as vulnerable.

I laugh as much as I cry, and I cry a lot while I am watching this. It’s a timely piece,  serving not just as a reminder that asylum seekers should be met with kindness rather than hostility, but also, actually, a call to action. If six school kids can make a difference, then why can’t we? We can all be Glasgow Girls.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Beautiful Boy

21/01/19

The people emerging from the afternoon screening of Beautiful Boy, still mopping at their eyes, pay testament to the fact that this film is what used to be termed a ‘four handkerchief weepie.’ My tears are undoubtedly flowing as abundantly as many others in the audience, because this is a heartrending story about a father’s desperate attempts to deal with his beloved son’s drug addiction. Be warned, it does not exactly make for a side-splitting trip to the cinema.

Freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell, who seems to be in so many films lately it’s a wonder he didn’t land the title role in Mary Queen of Scots) has always had a close relationship with his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome and talented young lad who appears to have the brightest possible future ahead of him – until crystal meth addiction gets in the way and turns him into a deceitful, self-destructive shadow of what he once was. David can only watch in abject misery as all his hopes for his son’s future go headfirst down the nearest toilet – and we share his pain. It’s like watching helplessly as an out of control vehicle hurtles headlong to destruction, knowing that we are powerless to change anything.

Based on two books – one by the father and the other by the son – Beautiful Boy attempts to give us both sides of the story, though it must be said that I am occasionally left wanting more detail – and there is the conviction that some of the less salubrious elements of the tale have been lightly glossed over, perhaps because they may not show the protagonists in the best light. For instance, at one point David says that he has made mistakes in parenting Nic, but we don’t see any – indeed, he emerges as an almost saintly figure, working tirelessly to offer help and financial support.

The film belongs to the two leads and Chalomet, building on the superb work he did in Call Me By Your Name, manages to make us care about Nic, even as he does the most heinous things to the people who love him, even stealing money from the younger brother who clearly idolises him. Maura Tierney as David’s second wife, Karen, doesn’t have an awful lot to do here and, for that matter, neither does Amy Ryan as his first wife, Vicki. The story skips nimbly back and forth in time, using earlier scenes to emphasise the implicit trust that father and son once enjoyed and there are some clever uses of music to help tie things together – any film that features Neil Young’s Heart of Gold gets brownie points from me, even if its appearance precedes one of the story’s most distressing scenes.

The film ends with a plea for addicts everywhere to seek help and reminds us that, in America, drug addiction is the primary cause of death for young men under the age of fifty, which is sobering news, and underlines how the massive profits enjoyed by both drug suppliers and treatment centres are shameful and obscene.

Beautiful Boy is a heartfelt film with an important message and it deserves to be seen, but be prepared, take a hanky. You’ll probably need it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney