Film

Queen & Slim

31/01/20

In one scene in Queen & Slim, a character refers to the two leads as ‘the black Bonnie and Clyde’ – and it’s true that the spirit of Arthur Penn’s notorious 1967 crime drama hangs inescapably over this production. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that, while Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were small time opportunist crooks whose legend outgrew them, Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) are just two young black people in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for that odd title, we don’t even learn the characters’ real names until the film’s conclusion. Quite how they earn their titular monikers is anybody’s guess, but I’ll go with it for simplicity’s sake.

When we first encounter Queen and Slim, they are in Cleveland, Ohio, and struggling through an awkward first date, arranged via Tinder. She is a lawyer, miserable after losing a court case, and seeking solace from human company. He is just a happy-go-lucky guy, hoping for a bit of love action and refusing to complain when the scrambled eggs he’s ordered are delivered fried. As a couple, they aren’t exactly hitting it off, so they get into Slim’s car and head for Queen’s apartment, where Slim is clearly still hoping that things might develop further.

But the situation goes catastrophically awry when they are pulled over for a minor traffic violation and a racist white cop pulls a gun on them. In  the ensuing confusion, Queen is grazed by a bullet and, in self-defence, Slim shoots the officer dead.

Slim is all for calling the cops and facing the music, but Queen assures him that no black man can ever hope for a fair trial in such a situation. She ought to know; this is her area of expertise. She insists that they get in the car and drive South to New Orleans. They even discuss the possibility of crossing the water to Cuba.

And so a long Southbound odyssey begins. The couple encounter various characters along the way, and there’s a notable stopover with Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a gold-adorned pimp who owes Queen a major favour. Wherever they go, they realise that people are recognising them despite the fact that they have taken steps to radically change their appearances. It transpires that footage from the dead cop’s dashboard cam has somehow found its way onto social media and gone viral. Support for the fugitives begins to grow across America. Meanwhile, the police are attempting to track them down and have even offered a substantial reward for information leading to their arrest.

This is mostly an entertaining road trip with a powerful central message about inequality. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are engaging performers and, as the couple’s relationship begins to blossom, so we begin to learn a little more about them. Melina Matsoukis’s direction is pretty solid too, though – on what is her first feature film – she makes a few missteps, sometimes allowing the momentum to stall, occasionally trying little arty flourishes that don’t quite come off . Furthermore, the screenplay by Lena Waithe contains elements that don’t always entirely convince: occasionally there’s the feeling that certain details may have been lost in the edit. The film’s conclusion feels somehow horribly inevitable. Would it have been more empowering to buck the trend and offer something a tad more optimistic?

Still, for a debut feature, this is pretty impressive stuff and feels like another useful addition to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Anne Frank: Parallel Stories

27/01/20

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day and watching this documentary seems a fitting way to mark it. Anne Frank would have been ninety this year, had her life not been stolen by a repugnant ideology, had she not been murdered at sixteen because she was Jewish.

She’s just one, of course: a single, accessible representative of the unimaginable six million WWII victims of genocide. But her remarkable diaries provide a powerful insight, humanising those who were dehumanised, her singular narrative a worthy stand-in for those who cannot speak.

In this documentary by Sabina Fideli and Anna Migotto, other voices are added to the mix. We hear from five survivors (Arianna Szörenyi, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, Helga Weiss and sisters Andra and Tatiana Bucci), and their testimonies are heartbreaking. It’s impossible not to cry whilst listening to these dignified, thoughtful old women, all of whom have managed to build good lives for themselves, despite the horrors they endured: taken from their families, imprisoned, starved, brutalised, experimented on. As Nazi atrocities fade from living memory, it’s imperative that we should bear witness to these remaining first-hand narratives, because we cannot afford to forget. This is what happens when the far right ascend to power; this is why we need to be alert.

If the survivors were this film’s main focus, I think its impact would be immense. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of filler too, additional elements that weaken its effect. There’s a young girl, for example (Martina), travelling around Europe, purportedly learning about Anne Frank. But she never gets to speak or respond emotionally to what she discovers. Instead, we get a lot of artful shots of her looking sad with on fleek eyes, posting vapid photo-messages on social media (‘What were you thinking, Anne?’) with a rash of hashtags attached (#emotional). This seems like a terrible waste: we know from Anne’s own diary how intelligent and erudite young people can be; why is Martina reduced to such banality? I can’t work out what we, the audience, are supposed to gain from her presence.

I’m not sure about Helen Mirren either. She’s reading excerpts from the diary, sitting in a mock-up of Anne’s bedroom in the tiny Annexe where she hid for two long years. She reads beautifully – of course she does; she’s Helen Mirren – but I can’t help feeling this section would be stronger if the reader were someone with a closer connection to Anne Frank and the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, for the survivors’ stories alone, this is a must-see. Because their stories really matter. As one of the marvellous youngsters featured in the opening sequence makes clear: we need to be open to refugees, to people fleeing fear and oppression. Because every time we turn our backs or close our doors, another Anne Frank is condemned to die, and we reveal just how little we have learned.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Present Laughter: NT Live

26/01/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Uncut Gems

19/01/20

Hold the front-page! Adam Sandler has made a good movie. Actually, he’s made an excellent one. That’s not something I get to say very often.

To give the man his due, those with long memories will recall his assured turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and, more recently, he was pretty decent in The Meyerowitz Stories, but these lapses into quality are few and far between. Most of his output can be filed under E for ‘Embarrassing.’ So his starring role in the Safdie Brothers Uncut Gems is something of a revelation. Not only does he nail the central character perfectly, it’s hard to imagine any other actor being such a perfect fit.

Howard Ratner (no relation) is the proprietor of a jewellery store, situated in New York’s infamous ‘diamond district.’ Our introduction to him is unusual to say the least, as it’s via his small intestine – he’s having a colonoscopy. Howard is a wheeler-dealer, a man with a perpetual grin on his face and a gaze fixed resolutely on his next big score. He’s married to the long-suffering Dinah (Idina Menzel), he has several kids and he lives in a nice house in the suburbs. He also owns a swish city apartment where he entertains his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who is also an employee at his store. Against all the odds, Julia clearly loves Howard, and he is thinking seriously about leaving Dinah, who really doesn’t like him at all and has no hesitation in telling him so.

Howard senses that the biggest deal of his career is about to pop when he acquires a chunk of African rock containing a vein of rare ‘black’ opals, which he plans to put up for auction. But a visit to the store by famous basketball player Keven Garnett (gamely playing himself) complicates matters, as Garnett takes a shine to the stone and asks if he can ‘hold on to it’ for a day or so. Howard is understandably reluctant but finally agrees when Garnet leaves his championship ring as surety. But the problem is, Howard is an inveterate gambler, in hock to some very dangerous people – and when Garnett puts off returning the stone, a hideously complicated chain of events ensues.

The resulting action feels somewhat akin to a two-hour panic attack as Howard lurches from one desperate scenario to the next, being punched, excoriated and at one point literally stripped naked as he races frantically around, attempting to head off potential disaster. The Safdies achieve the seemingly impossible here by making me root for the frankly odious Howard; indeed, I’m soon so invested in him that I spend most of the movie perched on the edge of my seat, chewing my fingernails and praying that things will turn out well for him. And I’m hooked right up to the film’s heart-stopping conclusion.

Those who can’t cope with stress may not want to watch this. At times it feels like a genuinely life-shortening experience. But that, in my book, is a recommendation.

Uncut Gems will be streaming on Netflix from the end of the month, though I suspect its considerable powers will be somewhat diminished through the filter of a small screen. If you get the chance to see it in the cinema, take my advice – get it booked, grab a seat and buckle in for a thrill-ride.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Waves

17/01/20

We’re barely a fortnight into 2020 and accomplished films continue to spill onto our cinema screens. Where are all the duds? There have to be some, right?

Waves is a powerful story, told in an unashamedly bravura style by writer/director Trey Edward Shults, whose last film was the underrated It Comes at Night. He focuses here on the lives of a middle-class black family living in Florida. The opening scenes set out Shults’ stall in no uncertain manner, as the camera swoops and spins giddily around the interior of a crowded vehicle, as exuberant as the laughing passengers.

We are looking in on scenes from the life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a handsome  high school pupil preparing for a bright future at college. Driven by his ambitious father, Ronald (Sterling K Brown), and his more pragmatic stepmother, Catherine (Reneé Elise Goldsberry), Tyler is an active member of his school’s wrestling team and spends every spare moment he can training hard for an upcoming competition. 

But Tyler harbours a secret – he’s actually suffering from a serious muscle injury. Doctors have warned him to refrain from exercise, but he continues to push himself and regularly raids his father’s supply of powerful painkillers in order to make it through each bout. To add to his woes, his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Donie), has missed her period and, as the weeks pass, is unsure of what she wants to do about the situation. As the pressure steadily builds, Tyler finds himself spiralling, inevitably, out of control…

The film’s second half abruptly switches its attention to Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who has lived in her brother’s shadow for most of her life. When she meets up with shy, gawky Luke (Lucas Hedges), the ensuing romance helps her to blossom and she starts to discover her own identity. Then she finds out that Luke, one of her brother’s teammates, has his own demons to face…

While the story itself is not exactly undiscovered territory, the telling is extraordinary. Shults uses his cameras to reflect the different moods, employing vivid colours, eerie flashbacks, even sometimes changing the ratio of the screen to enhance the various emotions of the piece, aided by an evocative soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. 

Shults learned his craft as a cinematographer on the films of Terence Malick and some of the great director’s influences are apparent here but, in fairness, the film never strays into the glacial emptiness that typifies Malick’s recent output – and is all the better for that. 

Waves is an affecting meditation on love, loss and the process of healing. While Harrison Jnr has the showier role, it’s Russell who really impresses here, as her formerly repressed character gradually emerges from its cocoon and takes flight.

The film won’t be for everyone. Those who prefer a director who reigns in the visual tricks may find the impressionistic cinematography too intrusive. But, for those who admire the director’s art, Waves is a brilliant example of how it’s done.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Your Name

15/01/20

We missed this smash hit by Makoto Shinkai on its release in 2016, but tonight’s double bill at the Cameo – pairing Your Name with his latest release, Weathering With You – gives us the opportunity to find out what the fuss was all about.

And wow. Each critical superlative, every bit of box-office lucre, is completely merited. Shinkai is, indeed, a worthy successor to Hayao Miyazaki, recently retired head of Studio Ghibli. This is a beautiful animation.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl, living in the remote rural village of Itomori. Mitsuha feels stifled by her strict father, and by the ancient rituals she is obliged to follow. She dreams of being ‘a boy in Tokyo,’ with the freedom to do what she wants in a bustling city.

And sometimes, it seems, dreams can come true, because Mitsuha wakes up one day in an unfamiliar room – and body. She’s switched places with Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), and suddenly finds herself forced to negotiate the intricacies of a stranger’s life. Where is his school? Who are his friends? Mitsuha embraces the opportunity to hang out in café bars and flirt with Taki’s colleague, Ms Okudera (Masami Nagasawa), at his part-time restaurant job. She relishes the new experience.

Taki, meanwhile, is less enthusiastic about the change, although he can’t help enjoying playing with ‘his’ breasts, much to the outrage of Mitsuha’s younger sister, Yotsuha (Kanon Tani). Still, he goes along with it; what option does he have? And, before long, the teens have navigated a way through their intermittent body swaps, using their cell phones to log notes and reminders to keep things running (relatively) smoothly. I particularly like the way suspense is generated via a repeated motif where their lives almost collide.

So far, so seen-it-done-it-Freaky-Friday, but Shinkai’s movie has another layer, a deeper, more engaging heart, encompassing (without saying too much) fate, time travel and natural disaster. It’s compellingly told, with warmth and sincerity.

But it’s the animation that really makes this film. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous, with a clear delineation between the hard lines of the city and the sumptuous, lush countryside. At times photo-realistic, at others impressionistic, each frame is perfect, each hand-drawn image exquisitely realised.

A masterpiece.

5 stars

Susan Singfield