Film

Blinded By the Light

16/8/19

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a Pakistani teenager living in Luton in the 1980s. Struggling under the leash of his dictatorial father, Malik (Kulvinda Ghir), Javed harbours a longheld desire to be a writer. But, assailed on an almost daily basis by the racist taunts of brutal skinheads and the depravations of the Thatcher government, he realises his first need is to get a decent education and then get the hell out of there.

On his first day at sixth-form college, he meets up with Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh teenager, who – like Javed – is always plugged in to his Walkman. When Javed asks what he’s listening to, Roops lends him a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassesttes. ‘You can thank me later,’ he says. Javed is of course, doubtful. Springsteen? That’s dad-rock, isn’t it? But when he finally does listen, the first track he hears is Born to Run – and he has something of an epiphany. Springsteen seems to be singing about Javed’s life, about a kid on the edge who dreams of escape. And pretty soon, Javed is seeing the Boss as something like his spirit guide. Perhaps there really is a brighter future waiting for him. But then Malik loses his job and all bets are off.

Gurinder Chadha’s film is an eminently likeable affair, based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiographical book, Greetings From Bury Park. Javed is a charming hero and there are plenty of scenes here to keep audiences entertained – though it definately helps to be Springsteen-literate. The film’s at its best when protagonists are joyfully interracting with the music – a frantic chase around the streets of Luton to the strains of Thunder Road is a standout and I also love the scenes where the Boss’s lyrics are projected onto the landscape as Javed strides determinedly through a storm.

The film’s uneven though, and the hostility between Javed and his father feels a little over-familiar. Furthermore, I’m not sure I quite buy the adoring English teacher, Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), who enters Javed’s composition for a prestigious award without running it by him first. At one-hour-fifty-seven minutes, the film is overstuffed – it  could lose twenty minutes of running time without sacrificing anything in the way of storyline.

That said, this is an entertaining tale and it is nice to relive those early Springsteen tracks in all their glory. I also worshipped at the Boss’s altar back in the day.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

15/09/19

We’re deep into our annual scramble at the Edinburgh Fringe, but there’s a problem. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has opened and I need to see it. Not, I should hasten to add, because I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that – in my opinion – he’s the most overrated film director in history. But, The Cameo is screening the film in 35 mm, using a projector that was made some time in the 1940s and that’s something that the geek in me needs to see. So, a two-hour-and-forty-one minute slot is located in our schedule, and here I sit as the lights dim and the screen kicks into life.

The first thing to say is that the film looks incredible. Light projected through celluloid will always be superior to a digital print. That’s a fact. And I will also add that the film’s musical score is also pretty fantastic, featuring a plethora of sparkling 60s pop classics. But I’m afraid that’s the last good thing I have to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The plot: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was once a big name in Hollywood, due to regular starring roles in Western TV shows, but now his star is beginning to wane. He lives in a big house on Cielo Drive and is driven around by his gofer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a lowly caravan a short distance away. Booth too is on his uppers. Once a respected stuntman, he is now reduced to fetching and carrying for Rick. Oh, and the rumour is that back in the day, he murdered his wife. Next door lives the director du jour, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), fresh off the hit film Rosemary’s Baby, and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And meanwhile, up at Spahn’s Ranch, the Manson family are gearing up for some very dark deeds…

Look, the truth is, I really should like this film. The era fascinates me and so does the central story around which this is based. But what I see onscreen is an interminable trudge through a series of over-extended background stories, with Tarantino spending far too long on telling them and being far too pleased with his evocations of 60s cinema and television. Margot Robbie barely gets any lines of dialogue (which sadly enforces Tarantino’s reputation as a misogynist), the great Bruce Lee is depicted as an absolute dick, and a whole troupe of respected actors – Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino – are brought onscreen to perform five minutes of pointless ‘acting,’ before being summarily dismissed.

And then there’s that fairytale ending, applauded by many film critics as ‘audacious,’ but which to me seems merely dumb and kind of borderline offensive. Tarantino has previous form here as anyone who saw Inglourious Basterds will know.

Look, the man has many fans and this film has already been widely praised by other critics, so maybe I just need to accept that his style of filmmaking is not for me. But nobody is ever going to convince me that he is a director in control of his own process. Two hours and forty one minutes? Really?

But that 35mm print. Now that is class.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans

29/07/19

Chosen simply by virtue of being the only film currently on release that we haven’t seen, Horrible Histories is a cinematic adaptation of one of the much-loved books by Terry Deary and the even more-loved CBBC series – hence that needlessly complicated title. Lovers of the TV shows can rest assured that this is the usual compendium of immensely likable historical humour, with regular references to poo, vomit and uncontrollable bouts of anal wind. My inner eight-year-old found plenty to snigger about, while the adult parts of me enjoyed some clever references to actual historical events.

Skinny misfit Atti (Sebastian Croft) is bored with family life in Rome and longs for some adventure. He gets it, unexpectedly, when his nefarious attempt to earn money by selling bottled ‘gladiator sweat’ earns the ire of the brattish Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts). He promptly banishes Atti to ‘that stain in the corner of the map’ better known as Britain. Now the world’s least-convincing Roman soldier, Atti’s not in Pictish territory for long before he’s kidnapped by Orla (Emilia Jones), a teenage wannabe warrior-woman, desperate to prove to her father, Arghus (Nick Frost), that she has the right to wield a sword. The two youngsters soon take a shine to each other, but – predictably – they are somewhat star-crossed. Meanwhile, Boudicca (Kate Nash) is raising a massive army in order to take on her rotten Roman overlords…

This is rollicking stuff, the jokes hitting the screen with such frequency that if you don’t like the first one, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in just a few moments. The humour largely comes from filtering historical references through a contemporary perspective – Atti’s parents threatening to limit his ‘scroll time’ being a typical example. Legions of well known actors pop up in cameo roles, with Derek Jacobi even reprising his classic performance as Claudius and Kim Catrall relishing her stint as Nero’s interfering mother, Agrippina. And of course, there are several songs, though for some of the earlier ones, the lyrics are somewhat buried behind an over-exuberant rock accompaniment – a pity, because the lyrics I do manage to hear are playfully witty.

Occasionally, the budget restraints show: the pitched battles never seem to feature quite enough extras, and there clearly wasn’t enough dosh to buy Paulinus (Rupert Graves) some decent horse riding lessons… but overall this is a fun romp that will keep all but the pickiest audience members suitably entertained. There are no kids in evidence at the showing we attend, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

There’s plenteous laughticus.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Current War

26/07/19

This biopic concentrates on the rivalry between two famous inventors and their race to be the first to give America the ‘miracle’ of electric light. The film starts in the year 1800, with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the verge of a breakthrough with his direct current system. But then up pops George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), already a rich man from the gas industry, who proposes an alternating current version, which, he insists, will provide a cheaper and more powerful solution to the problem.

In the ensuing struggle to win the contract to light up America, fair play falls by the wayside; meanwhile, a Croatian genius by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make waves with a series of inventions that have the potential to eclipse the achievements of both Edison and Westinghouse combined.

It’s a fascinating but incredibly complex story, and Michael Mitnick’s script intially feels scattershot as it leaps frantically from location to location in an attempt to nail down all its disparate elements. But it’s worth sticking with, because – after a rather shaky start – the film hits its stride and becomes genuinely compelling, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doing a creditable job of capturing the period. The film highlights a fascinating conundrum when Edison is approached to use his technology to create a ‘humane’ way of executing criminals.

There’s a starry cast here with the likes of Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston and Matthew Macfadyen relegated to supporting roles.

It’s clear where the filmmakers’ loyalities lie. Edison is exposed as a hypocrite, a man obssessed with winning at all costs, at first opposed to using his technology as a weapon, next electrocuting animals willy nilly in order to cast his rival in a bad light. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a much more reasonable type, a man willing to step aside from the glory in order to achieve the greater good. It’s also clear (correctly in my opinion) that Tesla is held up here as the true genius, a man who constantly found his ideas appropriated by his rich financiers and who died destitute, without ever achieving his extraordinary potential.

The Current War isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it does illuminate the difficult birth of something that we now all take for granted, an invention that genuinely transformed the world as we know it. It also depicts the depths that people will sink to in order to see their names go down in history.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lion King

19/07/19

Much to the dismay – and often outright incredulity – of every millennial I know, I’ve never seen the original Lion King. I mean, I’ve seen the original original (Hamlet), but not the much-loved 1994 animation. Quelle horreur! So it seems tonight’s the night to – sort of – put that right, by reclining in my brand new leather Cineworld seat and checking out Jon Favreau’s new CGI adaptation.

It looks… ravishing. It’s stunningly impressive. The animals are so perfectly rendered I find myself thinking of it as ‘live action’, then have to remind myself that these are computer-generated images, not real wildlife at all. It’s truly awesome; I’m sure that even ardent fans of the cartoon would enjoy this iteration.

Because – apparently, according to Philip – it’s faithful to the original. It feels like a  lovingly recreated version of an old favourite, using new technology to enhance the look.

For those even further out of the loop than me, this is the story of Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover), a lion ordained for greatness. When his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is killed by his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Simba has to leave the plains he is destined to rule. He buries his sadness and shame, and forges a carefree life for himself in another region, where he befriends comedy warthog/meerkat duo, Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). Meanwhile, Scar and the scary hyenas are destroying Simba’s homeland. Eventually, fate comes calling for the young lion, when his childhood friend, Nala (Beyoncé), seeks him out, demanding his return.

Of course, the story is an old one, so there are few surprises in the script. No matter – it’s beautifully told. Sure, it’s a bit schmaltzy at times (that’s Disney for you), but it doesn’t shy away from the difficult stuff either, and is really rather dark at times. The hyenas (particularly Shenzi, voiced by Florence Kasumba) are genuinely terrifying, and the battles violent and visceral. I do have a few issues with the central premise (I’m not so keen on the idea that some are ‘born to rule’), but – honestly –  my main take-home from this is a sense of marvel at the technical accomplishments.

It’s very definitely worth seeing.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Animals

16/07/19

A big hit at this year’s Sundance Festival, Animals is an engaging film about friendship and hedonism. Written by Emma Jane Unsworth, based on her novel, and directed by Sophie Hyde, it’s the story of two women living in Dublin – coffee shop baristas by day and dedicated party animals by night. The two of them have a fierce and loyal friendship and they share a predilection for wine, drugs and casual sex with random strangers.

Indeed, Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) have elevated the act of getting wasted into a fine art. The trouble is, they are now thirty-ish and the people around them – including Laura’s older sister, Jean (Amy Molloy), herself a former wild child – are taking their feet off the accelerator and settling down. What’s more, Laura has long-nurtered a desire to be an author but, after years of sporadic work, she’s only managed to produce ten pages of decent writing.

She thinks she’s hit a turning point when she meets Jim (Fra Fee), a talented and dedicated classical pianist, who rarely takes a drink and consistently avoids late nights. The two of them fall for each other, and Laura starts to seriously consider marrying him, but this drives a wedge between her and Tyler, who is admant that she will not change her spots. And then louche would-be poet, Marty (Dermott Murphy), a man not unfamiliar with booze and drugs, wanders into the scenario and casts his gaze in Laura’s direction. Things get even more complicated…

There are two superb performances at the heart of this belated coming-of-age story. Shawkat is a quirky delight but it’s Grainger who does most of the heavy lifting here, managing to convey Laura’s conflicted persona with consummate skill. Anybody who has experienced some debauchery in their youth – and let’s face it, that covers most of us – will identify with this story. Laura’s discovery that to be a successful writer requires hours of dedication is no great revelation, but it’s eloquently told and well worth saying.  This may be a well-trodden story arc, but it manages to cleverly avoid the clichés. Laura doesn’t need rescuing, she doesn’t need to take drastic measures, she merely needs to exercise a little control over her own life. It’s unusual to find a movie with two female leads and, after the poor performance of the fabulous Booksmart, let’s hope Animals does as well as it deserves. It is well worth your attention.

And you can discuss it afterwards… preferrably over a bottle of wine.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Man Who Fell to Earth

14/07/19

Nicolas Roeg’s challenging – and in many ways groundbreaking – feature first hit cinema screens in 1976, the year before Star Wars came along and changed the intergalactic movie game forever. The Man Who Fell to Earth came hard on the heels of three other Roeg successes: Performance, Walkabout and (best of all) Don’t Look Now, all of which demonstrated the director’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking and his absolute refusal to tell any story in a straightforward manner. Now back on limited release, it’s interesting to reasess TMWFTE on the big screen. I saw it in 1976 and haven’t watched it since. I remember being blown away by it at the time.

David Bowie plays space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton, who plummets down into the wilds of New Mexico, with a bunch of gold rings to pawn for ready money and with a bundle of  gamechanging patents in his back pocket. (Disposable cameras anyone? Tiny stero sytems? Nah, that’ll never take off.) Pretty soon, he’s a reclusive Howard Hughes type, living in New York, and using lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) as the frontman for his various multi-million dollar business enterprises. Philandering university lecturer Nathan Bryce (the recently departed Rip Torn) notices the ripples that Thomas is making and soon ends up as an employee of the company.

On a trip back to New Mexico, however, Thomas falls in with ditsy chambermaid, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and the two of them quickly become an item. She introduces Thomas to the dubious joys of alcohol and, from there, he begins to take on the various shortcomings that humanity has to offer. As the film progresses, they exert an increasingly powerful hold on him, until he is finally subsumed by them.

It’s a dazzling trip, though some of the elements – viewed through a contemporary lens – have not aged particularly well. There’s an over-preponderance of long (and extremely graphic) sex scenes, some of which feel decidedly prurient – and the state-of-the-art makeup effects now – inevitably – look somewhat shonky. (The conceit here is that Bowie’s character stays the same age, while the human protagonists around him age dramatically.) But there’s little doubt about the power and grace of Bowie’s performance, even if it has to be said that he’s clearly portraying a character who is only one step removed from his own persona at the time.

Bowie would never again find a film role that fit him as perfectly as this one and Roeg too was about to see his fortunes decline with the failure of his next feature, Bad Timing, and the films that came after it. But TMWFTE stands as a testimony to an auteur at the height of his powers, a long, twisting kaleidoscope of a film, full of eyepopping images and wry observations on the depravity of mankind.

It’s not what you’d call perfect, but it’s well worth a look.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney