Film

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

 

 

The Truth

12/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Hirokazu Koreeda’s first film outside his native Japan is an elegant French affair, a story about the tensions between mothers and daughters, fiction and truth, acting and living. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is a celebrated actress, whose memoir – entitled La Vérité – has just been published. There’s an initial print run of a hundred thousand, she boasts to her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche). ‘Fifty thousand,’ her assistant corrects her, and Lumir rolls her eyes. Such self-aggrandising exaggeration is clearly typical of her mother, and establishes Fabienne’s complicated relationship with ‘truth.’

Lumir lives in New York, where she is a screen-writer. She has a husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor, newly sober after a stint in rehab, and a young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier); this is their first visit to Paris for many years. Clearly Lumir and Fabienne have issues to work through.

The storytelling is as elegant as Fabienne’s home furnishings. She has all the trappings of success, including a house that ‘looks like a castle.’ She’s imperious and vain, but complex too: this is no pantomime villain. Just a woman, caught in the gap between the fantasies she performs and the emotional realities she avoids.

The film-within-a-film device is neatly employed, the parallels between Fabienne’s current project, Memories of My Mother (based on a short story by Ken Liu), and the dynamics of her real-life family are subtly – but clearly – defined. In the story, a mother is frozen in time; her daughter ages while she stays the same. Fabienne plays the daughters’s oldest incarnation. But Fabienne and Lumir are frozen too; they’ve never moved past the resentments forged in Lumir’s youth, never resolved their feelings around a cataclysmic event, the death of ‘Sarah,’ Fabienne’s friend (and rival), and Lumir’s confidante. But, as Lumir confronts Fabienne about the distortions in her memoir, we see the glimmerings of a thaw…

Deneuve completely dominates this film, and that’s as it should be: it’s clearly her story. Fabienne is a huge character; everyone is diminished in her presence. Binoche and Hawke make excellent foils, their exasperation and admiration beautifully conveyed.

Koreeda is clearly one to watch; this is an utterly compelling piece of cinema, where not much happens but everything matters.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Funny Girl

08/05/20

Digital Theatre

I’m not at all sure that Funny Girl is quite my thing, but how will I know unless I give it a go? We haven’t watched a musical since lockdown began, so at the very least it’ll be a change. And Sheridan Smith is bound to be good, isn’t she?

Oh yes, she is. Smith is a delightful performer; she oozes charisma, and her vocals are stunning. She’s lively and likeable, connecting easily with the audience, even via the small screen.

I’m not mad about the play though. It’s too slight and feels dated (well, it is over fifty years since Barbra Streisand wowed in the movie version). It’s a biographical piece about 1920s Broadway star Fanny Brice, and the central notion seems to be how very surprising it is that someone as plain as Fanny can become successful. She’s so talented she can overcome her looks! And a handsome man even falls in love with her! It’s all a bit too Susan-Boyle-backstory for me.

Of course, it’s true that beauty matters far too much in show business, even now; it’s all too credible. It’s just that the script seems to venerate Fanny for overcoming her ordinary features, rather than excoriating an industry that values the wrong things.

The love story is weak as well. Darius Campbell plays Nick Arnstein, but I never really believe in him as a debonair playboy, and I never really get why Fanny falls for him the way she does. She seems so much stronger than him and so self-sufficient; the story is reminiscent of A Star is Born, but without the same tension. Nick doesn’t ever seem to have a star for Fanny to eclipse.

Nevertheless, this is a lively, spirited piece of theatre; the two hours pass by pleasantly. The choreography is cheeky and upbeat, and director Michael Mayer sensibly foregrounds the humour throughout. Because Fanny’s good-natured clowning is genuinely funny, and Smith knows how to make it land.

In fact, she’s so much better than the material it’s almost a travesty. She saves it, just, by being so irresistible.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Public

07/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

It’s probably a sign of the times when one-time movie brat and teen heart-throb, Emilio Estevez appears in a film playing – of all things – a librarian. Mind you, it’s clear from the outset that his character, Stuart Goodson, has hidden depths, not to mention a colourful past. And his tryst with kooky neighbour, Angela (Taylor Schilling), is enough to convince us that he knows how to party.

In The Public, he’s a long-serving worker at the Cincinnati Public Library, liked and trusted by his colleagues, his boss, Mr Anderson (Jeffrey Wright), and the legions of unemployed and homeless people who regard the place as an all-important refuge. They come here on a daily basis to get warm and dry, to educate themselves and to meet up with friends from across the city.

It’s one of the coldest winters on record and the city just doesn’t have enough shelters to ensure everyone has a bed for the night. Homeless man, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), knows he is unlikely to survive another night sleeping on the streets, he instigates an occupation of the library, and Goodson doesn’t exactly do his utmost to dissuade him from the notion. Pretty soon, the library is in lockdown, packed with destitute people, and the forces of law and order are called in to solve the situation. Key amongst the latter are heinous public prosecutor (and would-be Mayor) Josh Davis (Christian Slater) and experienced police negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin). And Bill has his own reasons for wanting to study the faces of the occupiers.

Written and directed by Estevez, The Public is an immensely likeable movie that strangely enough, has some things in common with John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club: a bunch of likeable misfits who find themselves trapped in a library under the baleful glare of authority. Sound familiar?

Davis is an interesting character and, if some of the others are less convincingly drawn (we really don’t find out enough about Ramstead and the situation with his runaway son), this is an enjoyable watch. The political messages occasionally verge on the naive; nonetheless, they are well-intentioned – and I love a narrative that repeatedly drives home the message that public libraries are a valuable and much-neglected resource, and richly deserve all the funding that can be thrown at them.

As somebody who regularly avails himself of the services of a public library (or at least, somebody who used to), this has me longing to be back in those quiet reflective spaces. Until such things are possible once more, The Public will have to suffice.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Assistant

06/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Writer/director Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a quietly troubling movie, a queasily believable insight into the machinations of the film industry, where venerated individuals are afforded too much power.

Julia Garner is Jane, a high-flying graduate who aspires to become a producer. For now, she’s stuck in an entry-level post, a lowly assistant to a movie mogul. Her duties include making coffee, photocopying, and removing evidence of his excesses. She throws away used syringes, wipes white powder off his desk, returns a stray earring to his lover, babysits his children and placates his crying wife. Her colleagues collude; they’re all fully versed in the kind of apologetic email she should send in response to being screamed at by the un-named boss, and a meeting with HR manager, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) – sought because of Jane’s concern for a ‘very young’ and naïve new recruit – reveals the unsurprising fact that there’s absolutely no support available. There are four hundred other people waiting to take her job, Wilcock tells Jane. She needs to put up and shut up – or she’s out.

The cleverness here is all in the understatement. We see how tedious and soul-destroying Jane’s role is: the brutal pre-dawn commute, the punishingly long hours, the personal nature of much of what she’s asked to do. She orders lunch for the whole office but doesn’t get a break herself; indeed, we’re always aware of how hungry she is, never managing more than a single bite of anything she tries to eat. Garner conveys Jane’s anxiety and brittle desperation most eloquently, despite  saying very little. We can feel her gritting her teeth, determining to get through this phase so that she can, eventually, have the career she wants. What’s less clear is whether she’ll be able to endure, and, if she does, what she will lose in the process.

The movie is claustrophobic and tense; there is little action but much revelation. I like that we never see the boss. His absence makes him universal – not a capricious individual who needs to be replaced, but a symbol of a rotten system that’s ripe for revolution.

And the Janes are starting to speak out.

#MeToo.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Calm With Horses

03/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

There’s something of the young Marlon Brandon in Cosmo Jarvis’s performance in Calm With Horses; indeed, there are plot similarities here that make this feel like a West of Ireland homage to On The Waterfront. But that doesn’t detract from the film’s power, nor the intensity of the performances.

Jarvis plays ‘Arm,’ a promising boxer in his youth, whose career hit the skids when he accidentally killed an opponent in the ring. Now he’s reduced to being the hired muscle for the Devers clan, a family of criminals who hold sway over the town where he lives. Arm is accompanied by his minder, Dympna (Barry Keoghan), who is the nephew of Hector (David Wilmot), the gang’s head honcho. Dympna is desperate to prove his worth and seems capable of making Arm do pretty much anything, no matter how brutal, usually by getting him drunk and stoned beforehand. It’s clear though, that Arm is basically a decent bloke who’s taken a wrong turn back in the day.

He has a son, Jack, with his former partner, Ursula (Niamh Algar), but the boy is severely autistic, only really happy when he’s riding a horse (hence the title). Ursula wants to move Jack to Cork, where there are specialised schools that can help him, and she asks Arm for financial help, but Dympna manages to dissuade him; he has another job for Arm, one that requires him to more than just beat somebody up…

Nick Roland’s debut picture, with a screenplay by Joe Murtagh, is set in those parts of the West of Ireland where tourists would fear to tread – indeed, a visit to Paudi (Ned Dennehy)’s garage is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not just sides of beef he has hanging in that outbuilding. This is mostly Jarvis’s film, though Keoghan once again displays his uncanny knack of choosing the right role at the right  time, and Dennehy’s smirking, scowling performance shows why his is one of the most familiar faces in Irish cinema.

If there’s a certain inevitability to the story’s ending, it’s more than compensated for by the film’s raw power and those memorable characterisations. Those looking for a charming, lyrical tale of simple country folk may wish to look elsewhere.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney