Film

The Nightingale

04/08/20

Netflix

It’s been six years since Jennifer Kent’s impressive second feature, The Babadouk initiated the urgent need for more absorbent seating in cinemas throughout the land. But where that film was a cleverly constructed frightmare, The Nightingale is terrifying for entirely different reasons. It’s an unflinching account of events in Tasmania in 1825, where the indigenous population is being systematically eradicated and where everyday life for the white settlers is unrelentingly savage.

I’ve been wanting to see this film for quite some time. On its cinematic release in 2018, it caused much controversy, but I was unable to find a single cinema in my locality that was showing it. Now, finally, here it is on Netflix, in all its excruciating detail. And ‘excruciating’ is definitely the operative word.

The ‘nightingale’ of the title is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish woman, sent to the penal colonies for some unspecified crime before being ‘rescued’ by Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a callous and ambitious military officer, who keeps her for his own amusement – and for her ability to sing plaintive Irish ballads. 

Clare is now married to another convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and even has a baby by him, but – when Clare asks if, after three years of toil, she and her husband might be allowed to go free – Hawkins (in an almost unwatchable scene) exercises his control over her in the most brutal way imaginable. And when Aidan,, emboldened by drink, goes to plead his wife’s case, horrific violence ensues.

Hawkins and his equally depraved Sergeant, Ruse (Damon Harriman), set off across the hostile landscape to the town where Hawkins is to take up a new commission. Clare follows, intent on revenge, enlisting an aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali  Ganambarr), to be her guide. At first the two of them simply tolerate each other but, as their arduous journey continues, they start to become friends…

It should be said right up front that The Nightingale is not for the faint hearted. It’s a coruscating, shocking and occasionally heartbreaking story, set during one of the most shameful periods of contemporary history. Rape, murder and general violence are all depicted in unflinching detail – though it’s important to add that at no point does any of it feel prurient. Hawkins is a particularly nasty piece of work – and perhaps it’s this character that prevents the film from being a truly great piece of work – he’s so unremittingly horrible, so vile, that he sometimes borders on caricature: a leering pantomime villain who exists purely for audiences to despise him. I would like some insight into what has made him the loathsome creature that he is. Also, there’s a point in the film where Clare bafflingly appears to lose her lust for vengeance and we’re never entirely sure why this is the case. The film wobbles for fifteen minutes or so, before coming back to full coherence.

And yet, this is a story that needs to be told, a reminder of how dehumanising the process of colonialism is. It’s a matter of historical record that the natives of Tasmania were eradicated by over-zealous settlers in just a few short years: apart, that is,  from one old woman who was kept alive… and exhibited in a zoo.

So, steel yourself and watch The Nightingale – if you have the mettle for it. I won’t try to claim that it’s a comfortable experience, but Kent’s film nonetheless tells a story that must never be forgotten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Old Guard

22/07/20

Netflix

Charlize Theron’s steady advance into the realms of the action hero continues apace with this Netflix Original, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based – unsurprisingly – on a comic book by Greg Rucka. Theron plays ‘Andy’ (or Andromadache of Scythia, if you want to be more formal about it), a centuries-old warrior princess. She’s the leader of a group of immortals who spend their spare time as mercenaries, jetting off to the world’s war zones to offer help to those who need it – kicking much ass as they do so.

The team also features Booker (Matthias Schoenarts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), characters Andy has encountered at various points across the world’s turbulent history, none of whom has much of a backstory – or at least not that the writer has bothered to share with us. When the team’s latest mission turns out to be a double cross, they quickly realise that somebody wants to capture them, and it becomes clear that CIA operative, Copley (Chiwetel  Ejiofor in a rather thankless role), is a key player in this operation.

Meanwhile, young GI, Nile (Kiki Layne), is wondering why a supposedly fatal injury she’s recently acquired in the line of duty hasn’t finished her off. Could it be that she’s the next new recruit for Andy’s team? Sure enough, Andy is soon showing her the ropes…

To be fair, The Old Guard isn’t the total debacle that many reviews have labelled it. It’s hokum, for sure, but it’s niftily directed hokum, which features several developments you don’t often see in a mainstream punch ’em up. Women are placed at the forefront of the action, for instance, while Joe and Nicky are lovers and proud to declare the fact to anyone who’ll listen.

But the story doesn’t always convince. We’re told that members of the team are immortal until ‘it’s time to die,’ which seems to be a case of having your cake and eating it – while Copley’s actions are frankly incomprehensible, lauding Andy and her crew in one breath and ratting them out in the next. His involvement with ruthless scientist and all-round bad egg, Merrick (Harry Melling), is unconvincing to say the least. What exactly are his motives?

Still, this is sprightly enough to pass a couple of hours with ease –  even if the obvious attempt to set this up as the first in a series is a tad optimistic.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Clemency

19/07/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Anybody who still believes that the death penalty is a defensible punishment should sit down and take a long, hard look at this film. Chinonye Chukwu’s bleak, slow burn of a movie ably demonstrates the ways in which capital punishment brutalises and destroys all who come into contact with it – including those who have to implement its chilling procedures.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) is the warden of an American prison, a place mostly populated by inmates awaiting death by lethal injection. In a blistering opening sequence, we see one such execution being carried out in unflinching detail. It’s horribly botched, which makes it all the more affecting.

Also waiting on death row is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a taciturn young man accused of murdering a police officer. He’s been imprisoned for seven years and  insists that he’s innocent, but what makes Clemency different from Just Mercy – a film with which it will inevitably be compared  – is that we’re really never sure whether he has committed the crime or not. In a way, it’s irrelevant, because it’s the very system of capital punishment that’s on trial here and not its victims.

Bernadine is struggling with her duties as warden – the daily grind of dealing with the fear, the hope, the demonstrators, the relatives of those imprisoned and, of course, the inmates themselves. She takes solace in drink and realises that a wedge is developing between her and her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), but feels unable to do anything about it. Around her, other people are quitting. Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who has spent his life fighting for death row prisoners, tells Bernardine that Woods’ case will be his last – he just can’t take any more campaigns for clemency that never yield results. Even the dead policeman’s parents feel that justice has already been served and want Woods to be pardoned. And he, meanwhile, has pinned all his his hopes on meeting his young son for the first time.

Both Woodward and Hedges submit powerhouse performances here; neither of them isafforded much opportunity to talk, but their fears and hopes are writ large in every move, in every despairing look they direct towards the camera. This will not be the happiest screen experience you’ve ever had, but it’s nonetheless a stirring and emotional story, and a passionate plea for change.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Fanny Lye Deliver’d

14/07/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Thomas Clay’s oddly titled film has clearly been a labour of love. Ten years in the making and set shortly after the end of the English Civil War, it’s been well reviewed elsewhere – and it stars Maxine Peake, surely the closest thing to a guarantee of quality that film lovers could reasonably ask for. So finally viewing the finished product comes as a crushing disappointment.

There are, of course, some good things to say about Fanny Lye Deliver’d. The look of the film is ravishing and the authenticity of the period setting sings out from just about every frame, putting me in mind of Michael Reeves’ wonderful Witchfinder General. A pity then that the authenticity doesn’t seem to extend to teaching the actors how to convincingly ride horses; they all look like they’ve never sat on a horse before, let alone ridden one. The musical score (composed by Clay and played on period instruments) is also rather good. But then there’s the story…

Fanny (Maxine Peake) is the hard-working wife of the much older John (Charles Dance), a former soldier and a hard taskmaster. It’s clear from the outset that Fanny is led a dog’s life, toiling from sunup to sundown, as she cares for her husband and her young son, Arthur (Zak Adams). The family’s routine is rudely disrupted by the arrival of Thomas Ashbury (Freddie Fox) and Rebecca Henshaw (Tanya Reynolds). The couple arrive stark naked and steal clothes from the Lye’s wardrobe but, when they explain that they have been set upon and rubbed of everything they own, the Lyes take them in, feed them, and tolerate their strange behaviour.

But a visit from the High Sheriff (Peter McDonald), who is in pursuit of two ‘heretics,’ changes everything, unleashing a whole series of violent events…

This might work if the visitors were charming enough to convince an audience that they really could fool a family like the Lyes into accepting their story, but, as played by Fox and Reynolds, they are about as likeable as a cockroach infestation. Quite why young Arthur would trust them – when their only interaction with him involves bullying him mercilessly – is therefore baffling.

We’re told that the two visitors represent a new sexual freedom, one that challenges the strictures of Puritanism,  but – when this supposed freedom seems to be demonstrated by its followers acting just as brutally as the people they supposedly oppose  – it doesn’t really cut the mustard. Furthermore, since the cathartic effect on Mrs Lye is the whole raison d’être for this story (narrated by Henshaw, years after the event) it’s frustrating to see how little opportunity Peake is given to shine, mostly having to convey Fanny’s inner turmoil with sidelong glances and occasional shrugs.

As if the nasty, spiteful storyline isn’t enough to put me off, the film has a slow, lumpen middle section, which drags remorselessly.  I find myself listening to Thomas Ashbury’s heavily accented drivel and vainly wish that Curzon Cinema would get around to offering subtitles for their films.

Fanny Lye Deliver’d feels like something of a missed opportunity, its good points totally swamped by an unpleasant and rather unconvincing storyline.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Eurovision Song Contest : The Story of Fire Saga

26/06/20

Netflix

There’s a wonderful idea at the heart of Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – even if it does boast one of the most unwieldy titles in recent cinematic history. Ferrell plays Icelander Lars Erickssong, a petulant man-child with a determination to win the world’s biggest song contest, an ambition nurtured since childhood when he saw first Abba performing Waterloo. He and his best friend, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), perform as pop duo Fire Saga, who play regularly in their local bar to the complete indifference of their neighbours. Even Lars’ father, Erick Erikssong (Pierce Brosnan) – a no-nonsense fisherman – makes it clear that it’s time his son stopped fooling around with music and got a proper job.

But when a series of complex misadventures results in Fire Saga being picked to appear in the regional heats for Eurovision, Lars has his eyes so firmly on the big prize, he is blithely unaware of Sigrit’s long held desire to make their relationship more than just a musical one.

Perhaps the film’s strongest suit is the songs, composed by Atli Övarsson and Savan Kotecha, which, with their “accidentally” suggestive lyrics and bombastic singalong choruses are convincing enough to pass muster as genuine Eurovision entries, whilst still consistently hitting the funny button. But not everything is quite as satisfying here. Having Icelandic characters played by American and English actors might invite accusations of cultural appropriation, especially when those characters are depicted as simplistic, superstitious oafs who believe in the existence of elves. Having genuine Icelanders in supporting roles, including the wonderful Ólafur Darri Ólaffsson, isn’t really enough to stave off those accusations.

On a similar note, Dan Stevens appears as Russian mega-star Alexander Lemtov, who soon begins to pursue Sigrit with singular determination. Again, he’s entertaining, but his motives are never really clear. Perhaps Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, was thinking of some real-life gay musical icons who went through the pretence of heterosexuality in order to placate their fans? Whatever the reasoning, this doesn’t quite come off.

But those reservations aside, I have to admit I am mightily entertained by ESCTSOFS and even feel somewhat moved by its final act. I am also delighted to note that much of the action is set in my home city of Edinburgh (it’s the host for the Eurovision final). Furthermore it’s good to see Ferrell back on some kind of form. If I’m honest, it’s a long time since any of his efforts have made me laugh. A shout out here should go to Molly Sanden who provides the vocals for Sigrit’s performances – and there’s me thinking, ‘Wow, McAdams really can sing!’

If you’re looking for an undemanding, good-time film to while away a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Blues Brothers

18/06/20

Netflix

Continuing our (very ) occasional reappraisal of classic movies, I find this beauty lurking on Netflix and immediately feel a powerful need to reconnect with it. The Blues Brothers first emerged in 1980 and I know I watched it in the cinema on its release, but, nearly forty years later, I can no longer recall exactly where I was at the time, nor which particular establishment I viewed it in. No matter.

John Landis’s film came hot off his success with Animal House and is very much a love letter to rhythm and blues. It features a whole host of celebrated performers in cameo roles: Cab Galloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin; they are all trotted out to perform a song apiece as ‘Joliet’ Jake (John Bellshill) and his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) go about their ‘mission from God,’ trying to raise $5000 dollars to save the orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. $5000 dollars probably seemed a lot of money back then.

The overall feel here is of a cartoon made flesh. No matter what outlandish events befall our heroes (they are shot at with bazookas and flamethrowers and, at one point Elwood’s entire apartment block collapses around them), they don’t even raise an eyebrow – and they never remove their sunglasses, even at night. Well, apart from one famous bit…

The action sequences are amped up to eleven. You want a car chase? Sure, but why use four vehicles when you can use one hundred and four? You want to destroy an entire shopping mall in the process? Go on, the budget’s right there, spend it!

Much of the fun here is in revisiting those glorious set pieces. As somebody who played in bands throughout much of my youth and who often found himself performing in unsuitable venues, I will always relish the BB’s comeback gig where they are obliged to take the stage at a country and western bar posing as The Good Ol’ Boys. When their opening number, Gimme Some Loving, causes a riot, they are reduced to bashing out a version of the theme from Rawhide, swiftly followed by a tearjerking Stand By Your Man. Priceless. And of course, who doesn’t relish the scene where the boys drive straight at a group of Nazis forcing them to jump off a bridge into a river? 

Carrie Fisher makes a memorable appearance as the woman who Jake left at the altar and who has pledged to destroy him and his brother, by any means possible.  Something I didn’t expect when rewatching this film was to notice how many great movie actors featured here are no longer with us – and how much I miss them.

Sure, you can argue that the film is decidedly rough around the edges. Many of those featured musicians can’t act for toffee and the guest appearance by Twiggy (who presumably just happened to be around) feels entirely gratuitous. Some of the special effects are very much of their time, i.e. not that special.

But nevertheless The Blues Brothers still rocks, still makes me laugh out loud and provides a perfect tonic for these troubled times. And who could ever forget that famous quote, which in the 1980s, we repeated again and again?

Elwood: “There’s one hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Jake: “Hit it!”

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Da 5 Bloods

12/06/20

A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

From Up On Poppy Hill

20/05/20

Netflix

In these troubled times, isn’t it great to have something dependable to tune in to? Looking through the crop of Studio Ghibli animations on Netflix, we find another one we failed to catch on its release. From Up on Poppy Hill first graced screens in 2011. It’s scripted by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki, directed by his son, Gorô, and is set in the early 60s, when Japan was readying itself to host the Olympic Games. Unlike many Ghibli films, the setting (Yokohama) is authentically Japanese in just abut every detail.

Predictably, the story focuses on a plucky teenage girl. Umi (Masami Nagasawa) is a hardworking sixteen-year-old. Her father died during the Korean war and her mother, a medical professor, is away studying in America. So Umi is helping to run the family’s boarding house, cooking and cleaning whenever she’s not attending High School. It’s here that she first encounters, Shun (Jun’chi Okada), a fellow student. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have an attraction.  Shun is an enthusiastic supporter of the school’s club house, the Quartier Latin, where various societies pursue their myriad interests. When the shabby old building where everything happens is threatened with demolition, Umi and Shun work together to try and avert disaster and, inevitably, their relationship deepens.

But a series of tragic events that occurred during the Korean war threatens to destroy any chance of a relationship between them…

This may not be one of Ghibli’s big-hitters but it’s nonetheless an appealing tale, sensitively told – and, as ever with this studio, the magic is all in the detail. There are some truly breathtaking images here, particularly in the depictions of the city at night; I especially enjoy a delightful extended sequence that begins just before twilight and effortlessly moves through a ravishing sunset and into the evening.

It’s true that the story’s resolution provides no great surprises but I like the realism of it, and the emotional clarity of the storytelling.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Platform

17/04/20

Netflix

It’s surely just a horrible coincidence that this Spanish dystopian drama, directed by Glader Gaztelu-Urrutia and written by David Desola, has its release in the midst of a global pandemic. But its storyline – a somewhat heavyhanded parable about the world and the way in which it consistently fails to fairly share out its considerable resources –  couldn’t have felt more prescient at any time than it does now. Think about it for a moment. People confined to one space, where their daily meal takes on an-powerful ritualistic quality, and where the diners are dependent on those above them to dole out their only means of day-to-day survival. Sound familiar?

Goreng (Ivan Massagué) wakes up in a cell. He’s in a place called The Hole, a ‘vertical self-management centre.’ He’s actually volunteered to come here and will receive some kind of work-related diploma if he manages to stick it out for six months. Go Goreng! His older cellmate, Trimgasi (Zorion Eguileor) is serving a year for manslaughter and, to add to Goreng’s problems, he’s not much of a conversationalist. Goreng cannot help but notice that there are other cells above him and many, many more below, all of them linked by an oblong vertical shaft. After much prompting, Trimagasi fills him in on how the place works.

Every day, a sumptuous feast is prepared by a battalion of chefs at the top of the tower and is carefully laid out on the titular platform. This is then lowered slowly down the shaft, pausing briefly at every level. The inmates of each cell then have a short space of time to eat what they can, before whatever’s left is lowered to the next set of diners… and the next…. and the next. Inmates can only take what they can eat immediately – any attempt to keep something back is brutally dealt with.

Trimagasi explains that there are reputed to be two hundred levels in the tower and that they are currently on level 48 – a relatively decent place to be – but, at the end of each month, they will be relocated to a new cell and there’s no knowing if they will be moved upwards or downwards. On the lower levels, of course, survival is much more difficult and cannibalism is rife. There are other things to worry about. Even on the higher levels there are suicides, murders and the occasional problem of people voiding their bowels onto those below them.

Each inmate is allowed to bring one luxury with them. Goreng has chosen a book, The Adventures of Don Quixote, which he has always meant to read. More worryingly, Trimagasi has opted for a self-sharpening knife…

It probably goes without saying that those looking for a lighthearted romp to ease them through the misery of lockdown may want to steer well clear of this one. There’s no denying that The Platform is sometimes a hard watch, a dark, brutal tale, garnished with lashings of gore and served up with a side-order of wince-inducing violence. While its message is doubtless well-intentioned, (and undeniably true) it is rather one-note in its approach. While initially compelling, it struggles to hold the attention in the latter stages of its relatively short 94 minute run and, as events lurch bloodily into the final furlong, fails to bring any new flavours to the mix.

Still, this is memorable stuff and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in a while. Who knows, in happer times, I might well have enjoyed it – if that’s the right word – considerably more than I actually do. Perhaps I just have too much on my mind.

Now… what are we having for dinner tonight?

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney