Film

Vivarium

02/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Curzon Home Cinema has become our go-to for movies in these stay-at-home times, and Lorcan Finnegan’s waking nightmare, Vivarium, is the latest on their list to catch our eye.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star as Gemma and Tom, a teacher and a tree surgeon. They’re ready, they think, to buy a home together, and visit an estate agent to see what’s available. When creepy Martin (Jonathan Aris) recommends Yonder, a vast suburban estate of identikit new builds, Gemma and Tom are dubious. But Martin is very persuasive, and they agree to go along, just to have a look.

To their horror, they find themselves trapped: it is impossible to escape Yonder’s endless green streets; despite their ever-more frantic efforts, they always end up back at the same house, with food and other staples delivered silently and anonymously, all shrink-wrapped and pre-packaged like the life they’re being forced into. One day, a baby (Côme Thiry) is deposited on their step; within days he has grown into a freaky young boy (Senan Jennings). Tom insists they should refuse to care for the child – it’s not human, he says, and certainly not theirs – but Gemma can’t face leaving the boy to his fate, and does her best to look after him. Tom, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly obsessed with digging a hole in the garden…

The metaphors here are all thinly-veiled. The opening sequence of a cuckoo forcing its way into a nest, brazenly devouring everything it can, is a beautifully brutal portent of what’s to come, but it’s not a subtle allegory. The cartoon-like Yonder, with its perfectly manicured lawns and lifeless, listless architecture, represents the living hell of conformity, the loss of self that many couples feel as they settle down, do what’s expected of them, become subsumed by their children’s needs.

So no, not subtle, but clever nonetheless. The child’s age, for example, is a neat concept: the sight of a six-year-old screaming relentlessly while his ‘parents’ desperately try to placate him with food seems monstrous; the way he copies what they say and parrots it back at them is equally grotesque. But this is just what babies do, amplified here to awful effect.

There is, it must be said, only a single idea here, so it is all bit one-note. Nevertheless, Vivarium is a taut and genuinely frightening film, and its pervasive imagery might well haunt your dreams, especially if you watch it now, while we’re all ensnared in a similar scenario, unable to venture far from home, and barred from participating in the lives we used to lead.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Extraction

30/04/20

Netflix

Written by Joe Russo (one half of the world’s most successful filmmaking duo) and directed by former Avengers stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave, Extraction is a brutal action flick that once might have found an audience amongst undemanding cinema-goers, but is now plying its muscular swagger on Netflix. Chris Hemsworth stars as hard-bitten mercenary, Tyler Rake – a name that sounds more like a useful instruction for a gardener than an actual person – and, when we first meet him, he’s already taking bullets on a bridge in Dhaka, whilst being haunted by blurred memories of a happier, earlier lifestyle.

When Ovi Maharjan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenage son of a powerful Indian drug lord, is kidnapped by a rival gangster, Rake is handed the unenviable task of rescuing him and bringing him back alive. At first the mission goes surprisingly smoothly but, of course, things quickly go awry when Rake finds himself double-crossed  by Ovi’s father. What first seems like a straightforward extraction becomes ever more complicated, as armed drug dealers and a corrupt police force team up to recapture Ovi.

This is based on a graphic novel, but for much of the time feels more like it’s trying to emulate a video game, as Rake guns down, stabs, and punches what appears to be an interminable number of adversaries. At one point, he even takes out a troublesome opponent with the very gardening implement from which his name derives. For the first ten minutes or so, the action set pieces are suitably thrilling, but since all the fight scenes seem to go on forever, they soon start to become tedious.

Ironically, the film works best during its (admittedly brief) quieter stretches, though Rake is such a monosyllabic character, I find myself longing for him to utter more than the occasional grunts he emits whenever his teenage ward asks him pertinent questions. On the plus side, it’s great to see a mainstream film that employs so many subtitles, and the settings are beautifully presented, even if Rake appears to be doing his level best to eradicate most of the local population.

This is an unabashedly amoral tale. Our ‘hero’ is a man who will do pretty much anything for the right amount of money, the other major players all equally repugnant. There’s also a cameo by David Harbour as Rake’s ‘oldest friend,’ another mercenary, ready to sell poor Ovi to the highest bidder. Of course, Ovi is the only character here we can really root for, but, since he spends the entire film running frantically for safety, he never gets the opportunity to connect as he might do – and it’s hard to understand exactly why a deep bond seems to flourish between him and Rake, when they’ve barely exchanged a dozen words.

This isn’t awful, but somebody should have told the writers that less is more, and that a couple of beautifully executed, brief action sequences would have connected a lot more effectively than the endlessly protracted mayhem that’s on offer here.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

System Crasher

18/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Here’s a tip for you: don’t watch this film if you’re in the mood for a bit of light entertainment to help you while away a locked-down evening. Also, don’t watch it if you’re up for something sad but ultimately up-lifting. In fact, don’t watch it at all unless you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours feeling horrible and helpless, sobbing intermittently, furious about the way we let down our most vulnerable kids.

And nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is very vulnerable. Traumatised in her infant years, she is bursting with rage. Her social worker, Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), is running out of options. Benni has been expelled from so many group homes there’s nowhere left to try. All she wants is to go back to her mama (Lisa Hagmeister), but that’s not possible. Not when mama’s abusive boyfriend is there; not when mama fails every time to prioritise her daughter.

It’s utterly, devastatingly, heartbreaking. I don’t remember when I last cried so much. Zengel’s performance is extraordinary. Her Benni is a desperate child, who just needs someone to love her. But she’s so damaged, so violent and so destructive that not many adults can cope with her. Sometimes it seems like a breakthrough might be possible: there’s a string of well-meaning professionals such as her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who go out on a limb to try to help. But three weeks’ respite in the woods isn’t a permanent home; a friendly mentor is no replacement for a family; they can never give enough. And Benni’s yearning is so vast it’s all-consuming. Everyone wants to make things better but no one knows what to do.

The film is German, so the social care set-up is different from ours here in the UK. But the inadequacy of a bureaucratic system to address the needs of a wounded child is all too recognisable. The team around Benni are decent, dedicated folk, their anguish as palpable as hers as each of their efforts fails.

Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has crafted System Crasher to perfection, depicting Benni’s calamitous story in unflinching detail. I especially like the razor-sharp flickers of flashback we are shown whenever Benni begins to freak out, brief glimpses into the suffering that has shaped her blighted life. I like the colours too: a light-saturated palette that seems to suggest brighter possibilities.

Sadly, for Benni, such possibilities are only dreams. This is truly a modern tragedy.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Red Joan

11/04/20

Netflix

We missed Red Joan at the cinema, so tonight, searching Netflix, we’re pleased to see it’s now available to watch at home. Sadly, despite having Trevor Nunn at the helm and Dame Judi in the lead role, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Actually, the disappointment is partly because of the Dame. Not that she puts a foot wrong, of course, just that she’s not given anywhere to put her feet at all. She has almost nothing to do.

Red Joan is very loosely based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a cold war spy whose crimes only came to light in the 1990s, when she was an old woman. Here, in a script by Lindsay Shapero based on a novel by Jennie Rooney, Norwood is reimagined as Joan, a Cambridge physics student, who falls for the glamour of the communist set, before landing a graduate job working on the H bomb. Dench plays Old Joan, an eighty-year-old woman living a quiet suburban life, whose sudden arrest is a shock to everyone around her, not least her barrister son, Nick (Ben Miles). But, as her interrogator (Nina Sosanya) barks questions at her, Dench’s role mainly consists of listening impassively, then twisting her lips and saying, ‘Well…’

And then, each time, we’re into flashback territory, and the real lead role is clearly Young Joan, played with aplomb by Sophie Cookson, who is clearly destined for major stardom. But not only is this a criminal waste of Dench’s talent, the repetitive structure makes the film feel lumpen and heavy.

It’s nicely acted by all concerned, and the period details are lovingly realised. There are some interesting moral questions raised; it’s a very watchable movie. But, overall, Red Joan doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not sharp enough, not bold enough. Perhaps it’s just too much of a compromise: too far removed from the real story to have any heft, Norwood’s less palatable tale neutered to make Joan’s actions more morally acceptable.

There’s a better way to tell this tale.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

When Marnie Was There

09/04/20

Netflix

We’re continuing our Ghibli odyssey, courtesy of Netflix, and tonight’s selection is 2014’s whimsical When Marnie Was There. Adapted from Joan G Robinson’s 1967 Norfolk-based novel, Keiko Niwa’s script moves the action to a small Japanese coastal town, where asthmatic twelve-year-old Anna is sent for a summer of clean air and recuperation.

Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is a troubled kid: fostered because her parents are dead; socially awkward and unpopular at school; good at art but too self-conscious to let anyone see her work; habitually tongue-tied, but volatile – so that, when she does speak, it’s usually in anger. A holiday in the countryside with the kindly Oiwas (Susumu Terajima and Toshie Negishi) is just what she needs, for her mental as well as her physical health.

On a solitary walk in the marshland, Anna spots a derelict mansion, and feels strangely drawn to the place. There, she meets Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), a mysterious blonde girl, who lives in the house with her parents and servants. The friendship that develops is fierce, intense – and, at Marnie’s insistence, secret. Anna becomes obsessed; her feelings for Marnie are all-consuming. But not everything is as it seems…

When Marnie Was There is as beautifully crafted as you’d expect from this deservedly renowned studio: the drawings are delicate and sumptuous and full of emotion. The images of water and food are particularly lush, the latter almost making my mouth water.

And if the story is light and the revelations predictable, it’s nonetheless charming and very well told.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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