Film

Six Minutes to Midnight

21/04/21

Now TV

Eddie Izzard is well known these days for running marathons, so it’s perhaps appropriate that she spends much of this film’s screen time sprinting headlong across the countryside with vengeful Nazis in hot pursuit. Six Minutes to Midnight is an old-school espionage potboiler, very much in the tradition of The 39 Steps, where stiff-upper-lipped Brits take on Hitler’s double agents in plucky and indomitable style. Co-written by Izzard, the tale is set in the exotic location of Bexhill-on-Sea and is loosely based around a true story.

Izzard stars as Thomas Miller, applying for the role of English teacher at a boarding school for German girls on the eve of the Second World War. The twenty girls in residence – who seem to spend much of their time working on their deportment – are presided over by headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), and by the sole other teacher, Ilse (Carla Juri), who seems thoroughly charming. Miss Rocholl is doubtful about Miller’s abilities, but she’s in an awkward position, as the former English teacher has recently gone missing under mysterious circumstances, so she agrees to a trial period.

It’s not long before Miller has his German pupils merrily singing It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, which is an unusual approach to English, to say the very least – and it comes as no great surprise to discover that Miller isn’t really an English teacher at all…

As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that hardly anybody here is quite who they appear to be. Is Charlie (Jim Broadbent) really a happy-go-lucky bus driver? Is Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) actually a British secret agent or something decidedly more sinister? And what is the significance of the film’s title?

To be fair, Six Minutes to Midnight makes a decent fist at generating a little mystery, but never really gets up a proper head of steam when it comes to the action sequences – and whenever the story stalls, it’s treated as a cue for Eddie to start running again. Poor Judi Dench has little to do but utter some of the lamest lines in history, as events spiral towards an underwhelming climax.

This is decent enough, but nowhere near as gripping as it needs to be.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Promising Young Woman

20/04/21

Now TV

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a remarkable debut, at once fresh, funny, terrifying and compelling. Starring Carey Mulligan, it tells the tale of Cassie, a med-school dropout with a mission. Cassie is thirty, but she still lives at home with her parents; she works part-time in a coffee shop and has no friends at all. Something calamitous happened back in her uni days, and Cassie wants revenge…

Except she doesn’t; not really. I keep reading that PYW is a ‘rape revenge movie,’ but Cassie doesn’t seem to want revenge at all. Instead, she confronts people with a metaphorical mirror, so that they can’t help but see how shitty their behaviour is. The ‘nice guys’ who approach her with dispiriting predictability when she pretends to be drunk and alone in nightclubs, offering to ‘help’ by getting her home; the girls who slut-shame their peers; the figures of authority who brush sexual attacks under the carpet – Cassie just wants them to acknowledge that they’re wrong. She wants to effect change.

This is a zippy, witty piece of writing, that often feels surprising, and Mulligan is on fine form here. She’s perfect for the role: one minute she’s all sweet vulnerability, the next a steely avenging angel. Writer/director Fennell makes important points about the way our whole society protects and enables those who perpetrate assault whilst punishing their victims, but the film never feels preachy or didactic; she has an admirable lightness of touch. The bubblegum shades and kitsch soundtrack give us hints of rom-com (the scene in the pharmacy, where Cassie and her new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), dance to Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind is a particular delight), but Fennell repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our feet and takes us to some unexpected places. The bold references to Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter, for example, work well to underscore the bleak reality the story unveils.

The violence, when it comes, is shocking in its understatement. There is no blood and gore here, but neither is there any let up – I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that what we witness is a deliberate, protracted act. It works though, and I applaud Fennell for eschewing the salacious prurience that often dominates such scenes (Paul Verhoeven’s Elle being a case in point, a movie spoiled for me by its focus on the very acts it claimed to rail against).

It’s easy to see why Promising Young Woman has made such a splash, and appears to be a real Oscar contender. If Fennell wins, it will be well-deserved.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Run

18/04/21

Netflix

The title of this film is surely meant as an irony. What does a potential victim do when they are unable to run away from imminent danger? How can they hope to survive? Well, they must use their ingenuity of course – and this central premise is what fuels a tightly directed thriller from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, who some will remember from his 2018 offering, Searching. Yes, it’s slightly schlocky, and you might not want to think too closely about some of the background details, but it spins a gripping and suspenseful yarn that never lets up until it hits its final frame.

Chloe (Kiera Allen) is a teenager beset with a whole host of health issues. Just to make sure we appreciate how many there are, they are spelled out over the opening credits. She has asthma and eczema , she has to make herself vomit every morning and, most punishing of all, her legs are completely paralysed. Luckily, she has a mom in a million. She is Diane (Sarah Paulson), a woman who has devoted her life to caring for her daughter’s needs, teaching her at home, medicating her, cooking, cleaning, the whole shebang.

But a change is coming. Chloe has applied to go to University and she’s confidently awaiting offers of admission. Diane is taking it all in her stride. When asked by other carers how she’ll cope when her baby finally flies the nest, she assures them she’ll be just okay. Why, she’s actually looking forward to a little relaxation.

But… is she really as laid back as she appears?

It would be a crime to reveal any more of the plot. Suffice to say that there are some genuine surprises waiting in the wings to step out from cover and smack you in the kisser. Paulson is always good and she excels here as a cunning and deceitful character, able to mask everything behind a matronly smile. Allen too is utterly convincing as her daughter, who, over the space of a few days, has to come to terms with the fact that everything she’s believed since childhood needs to be drastically reassessed – and who is ingenious enough to find solutions to pretty much every problem that’s thrown at her.

There’s probably little point in mentioning any other actors because this is essentially a two hander – though I think an honourable nod should go to Pat Healy as ‘Mailman Tom,’ who certainly manages to make his brief appearance a memorable one.

So yes, this is well worth one hour and forty-eight minutes of your time.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sound of Metal

13/04/21

Amazon Prime

Sound of Metal has been making waves at film festivals around the world and has recently garnered multiple nominations for both BAFTAs and Oscars. It’s easy to see why it’s earned such acclaim. Despite that pugnacious title, this is a surprisingly gentle and reflective film and it’s also, I think, rather unique. It’s fair to say that I’ve never seen another movie quite like it.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a heavy metal duo, providing the beat for his singer/guitarist girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), to vocalise over. The two of them are in the middle of a big tour, driving around America in Ruben’s RV and looking forward to the releasing of their new album. From the brief performance we witness over the opening credits, it’s clear that Blackgammon devote considerably more attention to their amplification than they do to their songs – but they do manage to create a thumping, propulsive sound that has stirred up a sizeable following.

Ruben and Lou are both former drug addicts, and are just about managing to stay clean, despite all the temptations they encounter on tour.

And then, just before going onstage one night, Ruben suffers a sudden and catastrophic loss of hearing. He has to get through the ensuing performance on autopilot, but it’s evident to Lou that something isn’t right. Afterwards, he confesses his problem to her, and she insists that they contact their sponsor, Hector, to see what can be done about the situation. Meanwhile, Ruben visits a hearing specialist, who advises him that he needs to avoid loud noise at all costs – tricky, to say the least – and also mentions the possibility of cochlear implants, an operation that costs thousands of dollars, but which could give Ruben back some degree of hearing.

In the meantime, he is despatched to a rural shelter for deaf, recovering addicts, run by the taciturn Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his own hearing in the Vietnam War. Joe insists that Ruben can only stay at the retreat alone – or not at all, should he decide to have those implants. Joe is adamant that deafness is not a handicap and that surgery is the wrong approach. He advises Ruben to sit alone, to learn sign language and to experience his own ‘stillness.’

Ruben struggles to engage with the latter and though he starts to make progress at the retreat, he is still torn about the thought of those implants… and he thinks he can see a possible way to pay for them.

Sound of Metal is full of unexpected delights, one of which is – ironically – the soundtrack. Not the song that Blackgammon play, mind, but the incidental effects, which it took fifteen technicians to create. Elaborate soundscapes are featured throughout the film, alternating between the rich textures of nature and the weird, twisted versions that Ruben receives as his hearing begins to deteriorate. The most vivid example is at Lou’s birthday party, hosted by her musician father, Richard (Mathieu Almeric), where the sound cuts from a pretty duet performed by Lou and Richard, to the desecrated travesty that Ruben can actually hear. It’s the film’s most poignant moment.

It’s more than just the sound, though. Ahmed (who currently appears to be one of the busiest actors in the business) does a terrific job of portraying Ruben’s mounting terror as the thing he loves most in the world – the music that he and Lou create together- is cruelly taken away from him.

This won’t be for everyone – and that misleading title doesn’t really help – but it’s well worth the watch.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Concrete Cowboy

12/04/21

Netflix

There’s nothing innovative about the plot of Concrete Cowboy. The ‘troubled teen learns to better himself by caring for an animal’ trope is very well worn, with shining beacons such as Kes and Old Yeller really making their mark. But writer/director Ricky Staub’s movie is nevertheless well worth watching, because it’s hard to tire of redemption tales, and this one shines a light on a little-known community: black cowboys in Philadelphia.

This isn’t just my ignorance; the movie spells it out. Most of us don’t know black cowboys exist; they’ve been whitewashed out of history. In fact, we don’t expect to see poor black Philadelphians on horseback at all, but there they are, eking out a living from their urban stables.

Caleb McLaughlin is Cole, and he’s in bother. Again. Expelled from yet another Detroit school, Cole is running out of options. His mum, Amahle (Liz Priestley), knows she needs to do something radical. And so, despite his protests, she packs Cole’s bags and drives him to Philadelphia, telling him he has to spend the summer with his dad, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is not at all keen on the idea, especially when he realises just how unconventional Harp’s living arrangements are. Sleeping on a sofa isn’t such a big deal, but sharing a room with a horse is beyond the pale.

It’s not easy. Harp is kind but very strict, and Cole doesn’t take well to discipline. And there is temptation in Philadelphia too, in the form of Cole’s childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who’s risking everything by double-crossing the drug dealers he works for. Cole goes along for the ride – and for the fancy new trainers – but he soon realises the danger he’s in…

But he doesn’t need to follow Smoosh, because he has a horse, Boo: a wild, unbroken animal that only he can get close to. What will he do?

McLaughlin delivers a fine performance; it’s easy to empathise with the moody teenager he portrays, to understand his conflicting emotions. The ensemble cast are great too, notably Lorraine Toussaint as stable owner, Nessie, and Ivannah-Mercedes as love interest, Esha. But my favourite thing about this film is the exposé of the cowboys’ precarious situation. They rarely own their stables; as renters, they’re vulnerable to eviction, if a landowner can make money by selling to property developers as an area gentrifies, for example. It seems so wrong that their entire way of life can be threatened like this, and so short-sighted. All Smush wants is to earn enough money to move to the countryside and live on a ranch; if people are denied opportunities, of course they turn to crime.

So, no, it’s not original, and yes, you can see every plot turn a mile away, but Concrete Cowboy is still a fascinating watch.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Mauritanian

11/04/21

Amazon Prime Video

The Mauritanian has received mixed reviews, but I find it hard to see why anyone outside the “flog’ em, hang ’em” brigade would have a negative reaction here. It’s a nuanced and informative piece, making public the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the eponymous young Mauritanian, who, suspected of links to Al Quaeda, was detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen long years.

Kevin Macdonald’s film never points the reader in the direction of Slahi’s guilt or innocence, because that’s literally the point: we don’t know, and neither do the people who incarcerated him. Defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) reinforces the importance of this when she admonishes her young assistant, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), for responding emotionally to Shahi’s written confession. ‘Everyone is entitled to a defence,’ she tells her, and, ‘Since when did this country start locking people up without a trial?’ Because Slahi has been picked up on the flimsiest of evidence, and if we lose haebus corpus then surely we lose the right to refer to our legal system as ‘justice.’

Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is – disconcertingly – even more convincing as a US army man than he is as an English toff) is tasked with representing the state and, initially, he’s more than willing. Shahi is accused of plotting the 9/11 terror attack, where Couch lost a close personal friend. But Couch is a man of principle, and he can’t proceed in good conscience when he realises that Shahi’s confession was coerced through torture, and that the rule of law has been abandoned. Couch wants the guilty parties to pay – but he wants to make sure they are, actually, guilty. (He’s picky like that!)

Rahim is a revelation in the central role. He is charming, erudite, angry and afraid. The torture scenes – artfully shot, hallucinatory flashbacks – are horrifying; no one, no matter what they’ve done, should be brutalised this way. Foster shines as you’d expect her to, depicting a version of Hollander that is all grim determination and moral rectitude, a fierce advocate for doing the right thing.

This isn’t an exciting film: it’s the slow, careful unveiling of an unpalatable truth – namely, that the USA is violating its own doctrine in a detention camp deliberately situated far beyond its shores. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the hope, but – as long as there are people like Hollander in the world – they will, hopefully, eventually, be called to account. In the meantime, there are still more than forty prisoners there, and their plight needs addressing.

The Mauritanian is well worth a few hours of your time.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Palm Springs

10/04/21

Amazon Prime

If I told you I’d just watched a movie about a couple stuck in a time loop – how, for them, every day begins in the same way and that, every time they fall asleep, they wake up to find that they’re right back where they started, you’d doubtless nod and say, ‘Oh, yeah, Groundhog Day. Seen that.’ But Palm Springs unabashedly takes that same central premise and runs with it, taking the concept into fresh terrain – and manages to do so without once feeling like a rip off. Furthermore, with pretty much the whole world stuck in a repetitious pandemic loop, where every day is depressingly similar to its predecessor, the film seems eerily prescient.

This is the story of Nyles (Andy Samberg), who’s at the titular resort with his odious girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), and forced to spend every single day of his life reliving a wedding. The bride-to-be is Misty’s sister, Tala (Camila Mendes); the groom is Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Let’s face it, if you have to repeat an experience over and over for the rest of your days, somebody else’s family’s wedding isn’t going to figure highly on your bucket list. Nyles has been stuck in this loop for as long as he can remember, ever since wandering into a mysterious cave in the desert, and he’s resigned himself to creating as much variety as he can within these narrow limits, in the certain knowledge that if things start to go badly wrong, he can just step in front of a truck and start over.

But then he begins a flirtation with Tala’s sister, Sarah (Christina Miloti), who follows him into the cave and promptly finds herself trapped in the same dire situation. Determined not to amble along in the same accepting fashion as Nyles, she immediately attempts to disrupt the process that he has long ago accepted as his norm – and things begin to get really strange. Palm Springs is a sprightly, good natured confection, that never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. On the contrary, it gallops along, making its one hour, thirty minute running time fly by almost too quickly. Samberg and Miloti are an appealing duo – Milotti in particular exerts a persuasive, kooky charm – and there’s a cameo by the ever reliable J.K. Simmons as Roy, a man who from time to time enjoys hunting down – and killing – Nyles with a bow and arrow. (Don’t ask.)

While it’s played mostly for laughs, Palm Springs does posit an intriguing question. Are people really destined to be together forever? Or, as Nyles argues, is it better for them to have fun for a while and then head off in opposite directions to seek their own new horizons? And, when confronted by his unexpected feelings for Sarah, how can he ever hope to stick to his convictions?

It’s refreshing in these troubled times to find a film that doesn’t bog itself down in too many complications. My advice is simply to buckle in and enjoy the ride. It will take you to some unexpected places.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

To Olivia

08/04/21

Now TV

It’s the early 1960s and ambitious author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) is smarting from the lukewarm reception afforded to his recently published children’s novel, James and the Giant Peach. Undeterred, he’s planning his next opus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We know he’s an author because he constantly talks about the work in progress, dropping little references that relate to what’s coming next and using his three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo, as sounding boards for his new ideas. This is something that, in my experience, real authors never do. Should I ever fall into the habit, please feel free to tell me to shut up.

Dahl lives in darkest Surrey with his wife, acclaimed screen actress, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who is herself dissatisfied by the fact that her once eventful career seems to be heading nowhere fast, since she’s reached a certain age – though she has been offered a small part in Martin Ritt’s upcoming movie, a little thing called Hud. (Roald thinks the part is beneath her and advises her not to bother).

But their country idyll is shattered when Olivia contracts measles and, with no vaccine available in the 1960s, promptly dies of encephalitis. This film then is about Dahl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the death of his daughter and his subsequent struggle to maintain both his marriage to Neal and his relationships with his other children. On paper, it promises to be a visceral tearjerker. But somehow, it’s not.

John Hays’ film makes a valiant attempt to cover this difficult subject matter, but seems to shy away from anything too tortuous or distasteful, which means it all feels rather too cosy for its own good. Attempts have been made to ‘plain up’ Hugh Bonneville with a false nose and a balding pate but, even when he’s being unpleasant – something that the real Roald Dahl was allegedly very adept at – he’s still basically Hugh Bonneville, the very definition of a thoroughly nice chap. Hawes is perhaps a better fit for Neal, but isn’t given the kind of catharsis her character requires. Even her brief interplay with Paul Newman (Sam Heughan, who certainly looks the part) seems more concerned with pointing out how capable she is at putting the director and lead actor straight about their own project, which just feels downright odd.

To Olivia is curiously underwhelming. There’s an admittedly lovely turn from Isabella Jonsson as Tessa and there’s also the final performance from Geoffrey Palmer as a deeply unpleasant archbishop of Canterbury, ranting about animals not being allowed into the kingdom of heaven, but even that isn’t enough to make this project fly.

It’s like being assaulted with nicely plumped cushions – you don’t really feel any impact.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Minari

02/04/21

Curzon Home Cinema

This is our second Korean language film in a row, but the differences between The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil and Minari couldn’t be more marked. While the former is a brutal, no-nonsense punch to the gut, Minari is gentle, lyrical and beautifully understated – yet within those lovingly crafted twists and turns lies a powerful message about the importance of family and the folly of blind ambition. And, while the first film stays within the harsh confines of an Korean city, this one ventures out into the American midwest.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is a Korean immigrant, doggedly pursuing his personal dream in the wilds of Arkansas, dragging his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and his children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) along behind him. Jacob and Monica make their living sexing chicks – and trust me, that really is a valued occupation in this neck of the woods – but Jacob has bigger dreams. He longs to own his own farm, to grow vegetables in order to supply the ever burgeoning numbers of Korean supermarkets around the area.

But it’s going to require some hard graft. First a well needs to be dug, one that will supply him with enough water to get him through that all-important first year. And then the crop needs to be tended, around the clock.

It’s not plain sailing. For one thing, young David has a serious heart condition, which means he must never ever exert himself – and for another, Monica doesn’t share Jacob’s ambitions for the future. She’s not mad about living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and she hates the unfamiliar wide open spaces that surround her. In order to lighten the load, Monica’s Mother, Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn), is brought over from South Korea to live with the family. Soon-ja is a fascinating character, full of contradictions: at times foul-mouthed and openly rude towards her white neighbours; at others sweet, wise and warmly supportive of her grandchildren. David is initially dismissive of her but her influence on him and the rest of the family soon takes root, just as effectively as the Minari seeds she plants down by the creek…

This is a gorgeous film, beautifully acted by the cast – particularly by Yuh-Jung Youn, whose performance has already been rewarded with heaps of best supporting actor nominations. Alan S. Kim is also a constant delight, offering a skilled performance that belies his tender years.

But this film is much more than just an actor-led piece. Lee Isaac Chung, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the directorial reins with consummate skill, while Lachlan Milne’s shimmering cinematography makes every frame a visual delight. I also love that there are so many surprises here. The local community are not the hostile antagonists familiar from so many multi-cultural dramas, but are supportive and welcoming to their new neighbours. Even the initially forbidding, Paul (Will Paton), a local man given to speaking in tongues and lugging a life-size wooden cross around every Sunday, turns out to be a regular pussycat, who wants nothing more than to befriend these new arrivals.

And… isn’t there just a suggestion here of a miraculous happening within the Yi family? Something that, in their struggle for everyday survival, they barely even notice.

This is an absolute must-see, thoughtful, poignant and at times suspenseful. Miss it and weep.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

01/04/21

BBC iPlayer

Auntie Beeb seems an unlikely place to find this adrenalin-fuelled, kick-ass action movie, but there it is lurking in the vaults of iPlayer, all ready to be unleashed at the touch of a button. Despite that ‘does what it says on the tin’ title, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is sure to appeal to fans of Korean cinema – though perhaps not those who ‘enjoyed Parasite but find scenes of exaggerated violence distressing.’ Like many films in this genre, there’s an inordinate amount of fisticuffs, kicks and bullets being exchanged at regular intervals, albeit in a fairly cartoonish sort of way.

‘The Gangster’ of the title is Jung (Ma Dong-seok, previously seen in Train to Busan), a rather unpleasant fellow to be acquainted with, if the contents of his punch bag are anything to go by. Nattily attired and fond of his cigars, he heads up one of the major crime syndicates in his home city of Cheonan and, thanks to the regular bribes he pays to the resident police force, he’s free to ply his various trades – drugs, gambling, extortion, slapping people around – without too much interference.

But, one night, his car is rear-ended by mysterious serial killer, K (Jung Tae-seok – the ‘Devil’ in this narrative), and when Jung gets out to exchange words with him, K viciously assaults the gangster with a large kitchen knife. Not only is this extremely painful for Jung, it’s also something of a professional embarrassment for a man who is supposedly feared by everybody on his home turf. Honestly, what’s the world coming to?

While convalescing from his injuries, Jung is approached by ambitious cop, Jang (Mu-Yeol Kim). He’s exasperated by the fact that his boss is one of the people happily taking bribes from gangsters, and he’s also become obsessed with apprehending K and achieving a promotion as a result. He suggests that Jung might like to team up with him so they can pool their resources in order to catch the killer – a kind of Jung/Jang approach. This all sounds faintly ridiculous – and the claim that the film is ‘based on a true story’ probably needs to be taken with a large pinch of soy – but nevertheless, the result is a proper thrill ride. There are chases, shoot outs and stand offs galore and it’s all backed up by a story that’s clever enough to keep you hooked, even if your eyebrows are likely to remain permanently raised.

Little wonder TGTCTD has already been earmarked for a Hollywood remake, with Sylvester Stallone rumoured to be the major player. Chances are, the Americans will airbrush it until it loses all of its rough charms, so maybe grab your chance to see Won Tae-Lee’s original before it moves on.

Whatever else you feel, you won’t be bored.

4 stars

Philip Caveney