Film

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

23/04/18

Based on a bestselling novel and handsomely filmed on location by veteran director, Mike Newell, it’s hard to dislike this clunkily-titled romance. It’s handsomely produced and nicely acted by an ensemble cast and, if occasionally it wanders a little into the land of the twee, well, that’s no great hardship, because the story is interesting enough to keep us engaged to the end.

It’s 1946 and the world is recovering from the devastating effects of the second World War. Unfeasibly successful young author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), already has a best-selling book under her belt, and is being vigorously courted by rich and handsome American, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). But then a letter arrives from somebody she has never met. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has chanced upon her name and address in a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and mentions that he is a member of the titular society, hastily formed and named back in 1941, when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation.

After exchanging several letters with Dawsey, Juliet decides to head over to the island to attend the society’s next meeting, much to the consternation of her publisher – and best mate – Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), who needs her on the mainland to do an extensive book tour. Once on Guernsey, Juliet quickly discovers that the events of the war have left many wounds that have yet to heal and a bit of a mystery that’s desperately in need of a solution. Moreover, when she meets Dawsey in the flesh, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in him…

Okay, so there are no great surprises in the story, but when you have actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles, you aren’t going to be disappointed with their efforts – and Katherine Parkinson is a particular delight as the oddly named Isola Pribby, a member of the society who is constantly tipsy on the homemade gin she distils and sells. The parts of the story that deal with the Nazi occupation could doubtless have been handled with a little more abrasiveness but, more than anything else, this feels like a lushly filmed advertisement for the joys of Guernsey itself, with a host of gorgeous locations that are sure to encourage plenty of tourists to pay the place a visit this summer – which is rather ironic when you consider that all the filming was actually done in Devon!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unlikely to thrill you, but – if you’re a romantic soul who fancies a nice warm hug of a film – I’m sure this is just the ticket.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Beast

16/04/18

Beast is a well-crafted psychological thriller with a twisty-turny storyline that keeps you gripped and guessing right up to the very last frame. The first full-length feature from writer/director Michael Pearce, it’s set on Jersey and exploits the island’s unique atmosphere to great effect. Make no mistake, this is an assured debut from a talented young film maker.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young woman haunted by a violent incident in her childhood. Years later, she’s still paying for her youthful transgressions, tethered to the family home by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), and forced to provide care for her father, who is going through the early stages of dementia. Little wonder then that she chooses to bail out of her own birthday party in order to head to the local nightclub to chase up some drinks and a little action. On her way home, she bumps into Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rough-hewn local handyman, who, it transpires, has also broken a few rules in the past. To Moll, he personifies the idea of escape and the two of them begin a passionate affair, much to the undisguised disgust of Moll’s mother and her straight-laced older sister, Polly (Sharon Tarbet). They are all too aware that a spate of brutal murders is currently unfolding on the island and they make no secret of the fact that Pascal is their number one suspect…

What might so easily have been a run-of-the-mill murder mystery is elevated into something much more profound as Moll’s dreams, preoccupations and hangups are expertly brought into the mix, maintaining a hazy borderline between what’s real and what might only be imagined. At various points in the story, I find my suspicions switching back and forth like a ride on a roller coaster with malfunctioning brakes – and, if there’s a certain ambiguity about the film’s conclusion, it’s no bad thing, offering plenty to discuss – and maybe even argue about – long after the closing credits have rolled. Both Buckley and Flynn (the latter also currently carving out a successful career as a folk singer) acquit themselves well and, as the ice-cold, uptight mother, Geraldine James is her usual brilliant self.

Shown here in an Unlimited screening, the film gets a regular release towards the end of the month and is well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Howl’s Moving Castle

12/04/18

We had thought that the final film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season had eluded us – but, luckily for us, they have scheduled a Thursday lunchtime screening of Howl’s Moving Castle and I’m delighted they have, because this is surely something that deserves to be viewed on the big screen. For its sheer visual impressiveness, it’s certainly the best-looking film of the season. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Hayao Mizayaki’s sumptuous animation creates a stunning, steam-punk flavoured world, that contrasts charming Victorian imagery with futuristic depictions of flying machines and the horrors of warfare. Unlike the earlier films in the season, the version we see is dubbed and voiced by Western actors, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Eighteen year old Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a shy, unassuming girl, who works in her late father’s hat shop. She’s always thought of herself as plain and listens enviously as the local women discuss the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale), a powerful (and devilishly handsome)  magician who dwells in the eponymous moving castle. It is said that if he falls for a beautiful woman, he will devour her heart – so Sophie assumes herself safe from his predations. But then she does have an encounter with him and, shortly afterwards, is cursed by one of his rivals, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms her into an old woman. Desperate to find a cure for her condition, Sophie heads into the Wasteland, hoping she will find a wizard powerful enough to help her, but meets up instead, with a very helpful scarecrow. Pretty soon, she finds herself taking refuge in the moving castle itself, employed as a cleaner and constantly having to tend to wisecracking fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who manages the travelling building and makes sure that everything runs smoothly for Howl.

As I said, the world-building here is absolutely spectacular, encompassing scenes that will make you gasp at the sheer beauty and ingenuity displayed on the screen. Rather less convincing is the needlessly complicated storyline, which is at times hard to follow. I am also less enthusiastic about the fact that Sophie’s age changes from scene-to-scene (the older Sophie is voiced by veteran actress, Jean Simmons); though this is, at first, an intriguing move, it eventually seems to lack a consistent logic – why is she young in this scene? And old in this one? And… middle-aged here?

However, the  sheer splendour and invention of the film overpower me in the end. It’s an extraordinary achievement and, up on the big screen, it glows like a collection of precious jewels.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

A Quiet Place

09/04/18

It’s hard in this day and age to come up with a completely original idea for a film, but writer/director John Krasinski has certainly engineered a refreshing twist on a much-used idea with A Quiet Place.

The action takes place in an alternative America, one that has been overrun – not by zombies, or a raging epidemic – but by predatory alien creatures. And yes, I’ll grant you, this still doesn’t sound like something you haven’t already seen many times before. The creatures are never named and we are given no information about where they came from or how they rose to power. This is entirely deliberate and I love the fact that the filmmakers judge us capable of joining the dots on this. The aliens are completely blind and apparently have no sense of smell, but what they do have is highly developed hearing. Which means that, if you’re hoping to stay alive in this world, everything must be done in absolute silence. And I mean everything.

In the film’s powerful opening, we meet the Abbott family, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her husband, Lee (Krasinski), and their three children, one of whom, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is completely deaf and therefore has even more worries than the others, since she isn’t always aware when she’s actually making a noise. The family have ventured out of their remote house in search of medical supplies. We learn very quickly how complex this new world is. The family go everywhere barefoot, walking along trails of pre-laid sand, because even the sound of a breaking twig can spell doom for them. They have developed their own sign-language, their own way of doing ordinary household duties. And, as they quickly learn to their cost, battery-powered toys are not a good thing to pick up on their travels.

From this point, the film moves on in time. Evelyn is now pregnant. And of course, giving birth to a child really isn’t the quietest process in the world…

What we’re watching here, is, to all intents and purposes, a silent movie – and, as the film leaps nimbly from one incredibly tense sequence to the next,  it’s this very quality that allows Krasinki to wrack the tension up to almost unbearable levels. And that’s what feels so fresh about this idea, so effective. This, by the way,  is definitely a film to be watched with an audience. It won’t be anything like as suspenseful when you’re sitting at home, with the option of breaking for a coffee whenever things become a bit too stressful. In a cinema, there’s a palpable tension as the audience suffers in collective silence along with the Abbots – particularly with Evelyn, who goes through several levels of personal hell in this.

A word of warning. Don’t be the person gleefully chomping your way through a big tub of popcorn as the drama unfolds – not unless you want to be the most hated person in the cinema. My phone, which was switched to ‘vibrate only,’ went off in the middle of this and managed to sound to my startled ears like an express train thundering through an abandoned station.

A Quiet Place is, in many ways, a small film – a tiny cast, a couple of locations and a relatively short running time, which seems to positively sprint by – but it leaves a powerful impression. Hear that noise as you leave the cinema? It’s the sound of the entire audience letting out a breath of relief.

This is highly recommended viewing – and it’s quietly feminist too – though possibly not the ideal film to watch if you happen to be pregnant.

Just saying.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Peter Rabbit

03/04/18

It’s raining. Again. We’ve both taken an extended Easter break from work, but we don’t fancy going ahead with our planned walk around Roslin Glen. Not in this weather. Neither do we fancy staying in though; we’re on holiday, after all.

– Cinema?

– Nah, we’ve seen everything, haven’t we?

– Not quite everything…

– Ah.

And so we find ourselves in Cineworld, in front of Peter Rabbit. Our expectations are low. And they’re met.

It’s hard to know where to start. Except to say that it’s a crying shame this is so… unpleasant. It’s beautifully animated; it’s lively; it’s got some great slapstick routines. It’s got an impressive cast (we’re not part of the anti-Corden brigade; he was ace in One Man, Two Guvnors, not to mention The History Boys, Teachers, Gavin and Stacey, and so on). It’s genuinely funny at times. But, despite quite obviously trying to jump on the same bandwagon, it’s lacking the warm heart that makes Paddington succeed.

There’s so much nastiness here. Even if you removed the much-publicised ‘use-a-person’s-life-threatening-allergies-to-attack-them’ stuff, there’d still be plenty to dislike. Man dies of heart attack: a cause for celebration. Man suffers huge electric shocks: ha ha, how we laugh. There’s no one to root for. Not Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), the man child/disgruntled Harrod’s sales assistant, who inherits his uncle’s Windermere cottage and embarks on a mission to rid his vegetable patch of rabbits. Not Bea (Rose Byrne), the drippy incarnation of Beatrix Potter, who thinks rabbits should have free access to crops. And, sadly, not Peter either, nor any of his chums: they’re all cocky and banter-driven, cruel and bullying.

And, honestly, it all gets a bit dull. I think it’d make a decent short; there’e enough comedy to make a riotous twenty-minute piece. But the plot is too thin and the characters too one-dimensional to sustain a feature film.

But, hey. The kids around us are laughing, clearly enjoying themselves. I know we’re the wrong demographic, and – if this works for its intended audience – who am I to complain? It’s just, y’know, Paddington. We know it can be done.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Journeyman

02/04/18

It’s seven years since Paddy Considine’s blistering directorial debut, Tyrannosaur, made breakout stars of Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan. Since then, he’s mostly confined himself to assaying character roles in a host of feature films, from big budget thrillers to more modest independent productions. He’s generally a welcome asset to any film, but, when, we wondered, was he going to step up and take the reins again? In Journeyman, he finally goes the full Orson Welles, writing, directing and starring in this heartrending drama about boxing – or rather, about the aftermath of boxing, and what can happen to some of its exponents.

Considine plays Matty Burton, middleweight champion of the world, and currently training to defend his title against loudmouthed young contender, Andre ‘The Future’ Bryte (Anthony Welsh). Burton is happily married to Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and the couple have an infant daughter, Mia, who is their pride and joy. But, after a bruising title fight, Matty returns home badly beaten and shortly afterwards suffers a devastating collapse. Almost before we know what’s happening, he is home from hospital, radically brain damaged, and a changed man. He now needs to relearn the simplest things in life – how to tie his shoelaces, how to make a cup of tea and, more importantly, how to relate to the people he loves. The responsibility for his daily care falls on Emma, because Matty’s best friend, Jackie (Paul Popplewell), and his trainer, Richie (Tony Pitts), are nowhere to be seen. Overcome by shame after what happened to him, they have chosen to hide themselves away. Emma is struggling to get through each day and, what’s more, the husband who was once so calm and collected can now be violently unpredictable.

If you’re looking for a nuanced tale, this may not be the film for you. The story here is as straight and powerful as a haymaker to the jaw, as we share Matty’s tortured path to redemption. I like the fact that the script steadfastly refuses to condemn the sport that has so radically changed his life – and that Considine’s character never tries to assign blame for his condition, but instead, rises to the challenge of rediscovering the man he was before he was so radically damaged. I also like the fact that, in the end, it isn’t medicine or therapy that saves him, but love and friendship.

In a recent interview, the actor explained how for ages he resisted taking on the role, believing that he might be attempting too much – but it’s hard, having seen the film,  to imagine anyone else inhabiting the part quite so convincingly. Both he and Whittaker submit powerful performances here, and they are ably supported by a whole cast of characters, many of whom are not professional actors, but nurses and occupational therapists. If this isn’t quite the five star wonder that Tyrannosaur was, it’s nonetheless a poignant and powerfully affecting film.

A word of warning, though. If you have tears, prepare to shed them. I kid you not. I cried a bucket full.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney