Film

The Peanut Butter Falcon

03/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

One of the most interesting actorly transformations of recent years is the one undertaken by Shia LaBeouf. Formally regarded as a bit of a twonk about town, he recently delivered the excellent Honey Boy, the film he wrote whilst undergoing rehab – and now here’s another winner, in the shape of The Peanut Butter Falcon, an appealing buddy movie set in the wetlands of North Carolina, though in this case, the writing duties are handled by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also co-direct,

La Beouf plays Tyler, who – since the death of his much-loved older brother – is eking a precarious living as a crab fisherman. Tyler isn’t too fussy about occasionally robbing the traps of his more successful neighbours and this inevitably leads him into violent conflict with them. He’s soon obliged to go on the run from those he has crossed swords with.

But his escape bid coincides with that of runaway, Zak (Zack Gottsagen), who has managed to escape from the care home where he has been unfairly sequestered for far too long. Zak is a young man with Downs Syndrome.  There’s nobody else prepared to take charge of him, but he is understandably bewildered to be locked up with old age pensioners like his friend, Carl (Bruce Dern). Zak is also obsessed with a series of old videos featuring his longtime wrestling hero, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), and he’s determined to make his way to the man’s ‘wrestling school’ to meet him in person.

At first Tyler and Zak make for uncomfortable travelling companions but, as they progress across the waterlogged landscapes of their homeland, an appealing ‘chalk and cheese’ friendship begins to develop. It’s not long before Tyler is fuelling Zak’s ambition to be a professional wrestler, even coming up with the titular nickname for his intended career. But somebody is looking for Zak. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the carer formally charged with looking after him, has been told, in no uncertain terms, to find him and bring him back to face further incarceration…

This is a charming and affectionate film, which, though it occasionally strays uncomfortably close to schmaltz, nonetheless carries its powerful central message with considerable aplomb. Gottsagen is an assured performer and so is La Beouf, for that matter, though his deep Southern-fried accent occasionally has me wishing that Curzon Home Cinema offered the option of subtitles for English language features (something they’re still working on).

Niggles aside, this is a delightful, heartwarming tale. We missed it’s recent cinematic release and here’s a welcome opportunity to catch up with it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Midnight Run

28/03/20

Since new cinema releases are hard to come by, we’ve decided to take a fresh look at some old favourites and reappraise them through a contemporary lens. Are they still as good as we thought they were? First out of the (DVD) box is Midnight Run (1988), directed by Martin Brest.

I first saw this film on its cinematic release (so in Manchester, I guess) and I went to it with no real expectations. Brest was, at that time, best known for his work on Beverly Hills Cop, a big-hitting feature for Eddie Murphy, and I pretty much thought it would be just another genre piece. But it’s much more than that, largely because of the wonderful chemistry between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, which turns this comedy crime caper into what used be known as a ‘buddy movie.’

De Niro plays Jack Walsh, former cop turned bounty hunter, working for bails bondsman, Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano.) Moscone has recently put up the bail for accountant, Jonathan Mardukis (Grodin), who has stolen two million dollars from mafia big wig Jimmy Serrano (Denis Farina), money which he has promptly donated to charity. Serrano is eager to have his revenge and, meanwhile, the FBI, led by Agent Alonzo Mosely (Yapphet Kotto), are also very interested in talking to Mardukis. Can Walsh find his quarry and bring him in for trial before violent retribution catches up with him?

Of course, Midnight Run has all the genre tropes you’d expect from a film like this – hair raising shoot-outs, extended car chases and bruising punch ups  – but it’s in the developing relationship between Walsh and Mardukis that the film really shines. This, of course, features De Niro when he was still at the top of his game, able to convey so much with just a look and a shrug. Watch the heart-wrenching scene where Walsh is suddenly confronted by the teenage daughter he hasn’t seen in nine years and you are witnessing a masterclass in understatement. Grodin, meanwhile, plays his polar opposite, a calm and relaxed character, somehow nurturing despite his invidious position as the man who everybody wants to kill.

The witty screenplay by George Gallo fairly bristles with memorable one liners (I’m delighted to find that I can still remember most of them after all these years) and there’s also a hilarious turn from John Aston as dim-witted rival bounty hunter, Marvin Dorfler. The extended running ‘punch’ gag between him and Walsh is perfectly played throughout.

What seems particularly weird when viewing this from a contemporary perspective is all that gratuitous smoking – characters enjoy cigarettes on planes, trains, in offices, on the subway… just about everywhere you can think of. And of course, there are no mobile phones, so there are countless scenes of people talking from phone booths or running into bars just in time to pick up a receiver.

But these idiosyncrasies aside, Midnight Run stands time’s acid test. It’s still hugely enjoyable. Martin Brest had a few more successes waiting for him down the line, not least guiding Al Pacino to his Oscar win for Scent of a Woman in 1992, but this remains his most satisfying piece of work, the perfect choice for a locked-down life.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cat Returns

16/03/20

When the world goes mad, when cinemas across the UK close their doors, and when all major film releases are pushed back for months, what does a movie reviewer do for entertainment? Well, the recent rash of Studio Ghibli films, streamed on Netflix, seems a promising source to explore.

We’ve seen many of the big hitters, of course, but here’s something we missed on its first release in 2002. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita (who directed Akira and The Ghost in the Shell), The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki), a shy seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, whose life is completely upended when she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. It turns out that he’s no ordinary moggie, but Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada), the heir to the magical Cat Kingdom. What’s more, he’s determined to reward Haru for her good deed, even though showering her with mice isn’t as well-received as he expects.

This features the usual enchanting hand-drawn animation and a storyline that owes more than a passing debt to Alice in Wonderland – indeed, there are whole sequences here that pay homage to Lewis Carroll’s most famous book and the similarities are too marked to be accidental. While Alice finds her way to Wonderland by following a white rabbit, Haru follows podgy white cat, Muta (Tetsu Watanabe), and ends up in an equally bewildering destination.

Much like that story, the plot here meanders into some very eccentric backwaters and doesn’t make very much sense, but that’s not really a problem. I love the character of Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a super-cool cat who sports a sharp suit and bowler hat and has more than a dash of 007 about him – and Tetsurô Tanba’s Cat King is also entertaining, a clumsy buffoon, intent on marrying his son off to Haru (I know, weird, right?).

While The Cat Returns may not be top flight Ghibli, it’s nonetheless quirky and inventive enough to make an hour and fifteen minutes pass in the blink of a cat’s eye. And right now, that’s a bonus.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Misbehaviour

15/03/20

Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.

But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.

But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.

Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.

Thank you.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Invisible Man

01/03/20

HG Wells’ landmark novel first appeared in serial form in 1896. Since it’s screen debut in 1933, it has become one of the most adopted stories in movie history. Leigh Whanell’s version of the tale has little in common with Wells’ brainchild. If anything, it’s closest to Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man (2000), in which Kevin Bacon took on the titular role. But where that film was unforgivably salacious in tone, Whannell, rather astutely, uses the central idea as a metaphor for the way in which certain men can exert a powerful and malign influence over their female partners.

Here is a version of the story that chimes perfectly with #metoo – yet boasts all the thrills and jump-scares of a traditional fright movie. No mean achievement.

When we first encounter Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), she is already on the run from an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He is an ultra-successful inventor, working on a top secret project. The couple live in a super-swish home on a remote clifftop, where Adrian controls every aspect of Cecilia’s life – what she says, what she does, what she wears, what she eats – and he’s quick with his fists if she’s slow to obey him. She’s had more than enough. So she slips her husband a tranquilliser, grabs her pre-packed bag and makes a run for it. The film is taut with tension from the opening scene. The mere act of accidentally kicking a metal dog bowl is enough to make me almost jump out of my seat.

Two months later, Cecilia is lodging at the house of friendly cop, James (Aldis Hodge), a close friend of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). When news comes through that Adrian has killed himself, Cecilia starts to believe that her long nightmare is finally over – but then inexplicable things begin to happen around the house, incidents that threaten Cecilia and her developing friendship with James’ teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia gradually begins to understand that Adrian is still somehow holding the reins that govern her life. But she can’t see him. And the problem is, when she tries telling others that she’s being hounded by her invisible, dead partner, eyebrows are inevitably raised.

It’s strangely reassuring in this CGI-addicted era to see how much suspense Whannell manages to generate with what is mostly a traditional, low-tech approach. Shadowy corners, unexplained sounds in the night, brief glimpses of ‘something’ glimpsed from the corner of an eye … all of these are used to great effect to ramp up the steadily building tension to almost unbearable levels. Furthermore, there are enough twists and turns in this retelling to keep an audience guessing. It’s only as the film thunders into the final stretch that we actually get to ‘see’ the villain’s invisibility… if that makes sense – and to realise that the only person who can help Cecilia out of this sitation is Cecilia herself.

Moss is, as you might expect, superb here, convincingly showing us a character pushed to the very edge of sanity by the machinations of a vengeful and highly inventive partner.

Originally concieved as part of Universal’s planned (and promptly abandoned) ‘Dark Universe’ series, The Invisible Man is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And then some. Be warned. This is not one for those of a nervous disposition.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dark Waters

01/03/20

This film is something of a departure for director Todd Haynes, a far cry from the languid luminosity of Carol or Far From Heaven. Instead, he offers us a compelling exposé, a true story told with a devastating urgency.

Because there’s no getting away from it: this is urgent. Based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times article, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, it tells of corporate greed and negligence on a shocking scale. So far, so depressingly predictable. But there’s more: a dastardly cover-up designed to protect profits at all costs. And the costs are high.

DuPont is a massive company, and one of their most successful products is Teflon. Yes, that Teflon, the stuff that makes your pans non-stick and waterproofs your raincoat. There’s no denying its usefulness, nor its ubiquity. Unfortunately, it also turns out that there’s no denying the toxic nature of one of its components, namely PFOA, a ‘forever chemical’ that is very difficult to break down, no matter how it is disposed of. Not that DuPont have proved themselves too worried about its disposal: they’ve just dumped it in landfill, allowing it to pollute the water.

I should confess here that chemistry is not my strong point. Luckily, the script makes clear that hero lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is also a bit deficient in the arena of scientific-understanding; he needs the basics explaining, which gives us the chance to learn alongside him. Where Bilott does excel, though, is in the law – and in tenacity, morality and grit.

The movie is unflinching in its revelations, detailing Bilott’s response to farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp)’s out-of-the-blue request for help. Tennant is not Bilott’s typical client; he’s an environmental lawyer, yes, but of the corporate variety, more used to defending chemical companies than suing them. But Tennant’s evidence is both disturbing and irrefutable: DuPont’s landfill, bordering his farm, has visibly contaminated his creek; his cattle are sick and mad and dying at an alarming rate.

Despite DuPont’s attempt to forestall and stymie his investigations, Bilott persists, and discovers that DuPont have known about the potentially lethal nature of their product for decades. And it’s not just the cows: women working on the Teflon line have given birth to babies with distinctive facial deformities. It’s a poison.

It’s terrifying.

PFOA wasn’t a banned substance then. It is now. But lots of other, similar substances are not. And surely no one on earth is naïve enough to believe that there aren’t countless other companies committing countless other atrocities in pursuit of the mighty dollar, no matter how many of us are endangered by their greed? The 1% don’t even see the rest of us; we’re incidental to them, and if we’re damaged, we’re just collateral.

Yup, this is a spectacularly squalid and depressing tale, as dark and dingy as the cinematography. But there are a few beacons of hope: there is the irascible, taciturn Tennant; there is Bilott, his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and his boss, Tim Perp (Tim Robbins) – all determined to do the right thing despite the personal costs. A few good people really can make a difference.

And at least in the US they can reach a wide audience, via the robust journalism in some of their broadsheets and through their powerful movie industry. No wonder Todd Haynes felt he had no choice but to make this vital, disturbing film.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield