Film

The Mustang

02/09/19

The Mustang premiered at Sundance in January and was immediately picked up for wider distribution. It’s easy to see why. This is a moving account of a long-term convict, jailed for an unspeakably violent crime, who finds redemption through his attempts to tame a wild horse. It is a powerful, smouldering tale, with a strong central message – that those who break the law need to be given every opportunity to attone for their crimes.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as the improbably named Roman Coleman, currently serving his twelfth year for a savage assault on his former wife, and adamant that he does not want to be reintegrated into the outside world.  Whilst working on a maintenance programme, he meets up with Myles (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous old rancher who runs a rehibilitation programme, encouraging convicts to work alongside wild mustangs in an attempt to raise funds and save at least some of them from being culled.

At first Roman struggles to make headway with the stallion he has named Marquis, but -as he slowly begins to progress – so he is able to take stock of his life and think about repairing the divide between himself and his pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon).

Schoenaerts delivers a compelling performance in the lead role, a man who has turned himself into a simmering pressure cooker of anger and self-disgust. Writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre is sure-footed enough to guide this story through the potential pitfalls. Yes, the symbolism is pretty obvious: both man and horse are creatures that are possessed by their own inner rage; both need to be ‘broken’ if they are to exist in the world. And yet The Mustang has none of the obvious ‘feelgood’ tropes that such stories often depend upon – indeed, I find myself pleasantly surprised by its steadfast refusal to entertain easy answers. Add to this Ruben Imens’ magnificent location photography and Jed Kurzel’s atmospheric score, and you have a film that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

The fact that the story is based on a genuine prison rehabilitation programme only serves to strengthen its appeal.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Pain and Glory

01/09/19

Pedro Almadóvar’s twenty-first movie is his most openly autobiographical work to date. It’s the story of aging film director, Salvador Mallo (played by Almadóvar’s old muse, Antonio Banderas), who, after years of suffering from various crippling ailments, has lost his way and feels unable to continue with his stellar career.

When his 80s hit movie, Sabor, gets a re-release, he’s asked to attend a screening in Madrid alongside the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). Salvador hasn’t spoken to his former friend for thirty years, since a spectacular bust-up at the film’s première. But Salvador gamely visits Alberto, who is now in the throes of heroin addiction, and the two men soon end up ‘chasing the dragon’ together. This is the trigger that unleashes a series of childhood memories for Salvador: of his much put-upon mother, Jacinta (played both by Penelope Cruz and Julietta Serrano); of his eccentric schooling at a seminary in Madrid; and of his first sexual awakening, kindled by the presence of a young workman who visits the family home.

Pain and Glory is a gentle and charming film that takes on the tragedy of aging and the illusory nature of creativity with wisdom and panache. While the tone seems to veer alarmingly from scene to scene, and at one point even prompts questions about the wisdom of Almadóvar’s casting decisions, everything is brilliantly resolved in a final shot, where I suddenly realise that the story I am watching is not exactly what I think it is…

It’s the final piece in a complex cinematic puzzle composed by a genuine auteur.

This may not match the bravura delights of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Volver, but it’s nonetheless an assured work from one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished directors.

4.2 Stars

Philip Caveney

Crawl

29/08/19

There’s something refreshingly straightforward and unapologetic about Crawl. This isn’t a film that comes loaded with subtext or, indeed, any kind of ‘message.’ It is essentially a creature-feature, the story of two people desparately trying to avoid being eaten by alligators. Director Alexandre Aja keeps the narrative to a lean, mean one-hour-twenty-seven minutes, during which time he racks up the suspense to almost unbearable levels. You want jump scares? There are plenty of them here, timed with enough precision to make you jolt in your seat. You want creepy oppressive atmosphere? That’s here too, in abundance.

Hayley Keller (Kaya Scoledario) is a competive swimmer, who, since her parents’ divorce, has become somewhat estranged from her father (and former trainer), Dave (Barry Pepper). However, when a hurricane wreaks havoc on the stretch of Florida coastline where he lives and he repeatedly fails to answer his phone, Hayley is concerned enough to drive over to the family homestead to check on him.

Big mistake. Dave, it turns out, is trapped in the cellar, having been chomped on by a big ‘gator. To add to his woes, the water levels are rapidly rising, giving more ‘gators easy access to the house. Once down in the cellar with her stricken father, Hayley realises that, if they don’t get out of there fast, they’ll both be goners. But escaping turns out to be a whole lot more complicated than she could ever have imagined.

Having quickly set up the scenario, screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen proceed to put Hayley and Dave (and by default, the audience) through the wringer. Okay, so maybe there’s one attack too many here and some of the hair-raising escapes will prompt the occasional raised eyebrow – particularly when the few other featured characters are made such short work of – but this is largely successful, and the result is sufficiently entertaining to hold my attention to the final frame. A word of warning though. If injury details make you nauseous, this might not be the film for you.

Oh, and one other thing. Any ambitions I might have had to pay a visit to Florida have now been put on hold. Just saying.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Hail Satan?

28/08/19

Members of The Satanic Temple (TST) call themselves Satanists, but they don’t worship the devil. Instead, they deploy his iconography to rile America’s right-wing Christians, and to protest the creeping coalescence  of church and state. Led by Harvard graduate Lucien Greaves, they believe in goodwill, benevolence, open-mindedness and free expression. They support LGBT+ rights, and embark on charitable missions: litter-picking, giving dry socks to homeless people, donating tampons and sanitary towels to women’s shelters.

Penny Lane’s documentary is a wry, amusing exposé of this underground religion/political movement, and its impact on the easily outraged. TST’s creed is strictly non-violent, which repeatedly wrong-foots their targets, whose expectations are based on hysterical horror-movie imagery. Angry politicians don’t know quite how to denounce these gentle, mild-mannered ‘Satanists’ with their reasonable demands and humanitarian goals. It’s hilarious to watch.

There are some serious points being made. One TST adherent recalls being rebuked by his Catholic church for playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to heavy metal. But, as he points out, while he was just a kid listening to music and playing games, real evil was being carried out by priests, and covered up by those in charge. The fingers were pointing in the wrong direction.

It’s a fascinating watch, told with engaging lightness and a sense of frivolity, but actually showing how provocation can be an effective form of activism. Fundamentalist Christianity can’t be allowed to dictate laws, and TST are determined to prevent them from doing so.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Blinded By the Light

16/8/19

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a Pakistani teenager living in Luton in the 1980s. Struggling under the leash of his dictatorial father, Malik (Kulvinda Ghir), Javed harbours a longheld desire to be a writer. But, assailed on an almost daily basis by the racist taunts of brutal skinheads and the depravations of the Thatcher government, he realises his first need is to get a decent education and then get the hell out of there.

On his first day at sixth-form college, he meets up with Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh teenager, who – like Javed – is always plugged in to his Walkman. When Javed asks what he’s listening to, Roops lends him a couple of Bruce Springsteen cassesttes. ‘You can thank me later,’ he says. Javed is of course, doubtful. Springsteen? That’s dad-rock, isn’t it? But when he finally does listen, the first track he hears is Born to Run – and he has something of an epiphany. Springsteen seems to be singing about Javed’s life, about a kid on the edge who dreams of escape. And pretty soon, Javed is seeing the Boss as something like his spirit guide. Perhaps there really is a brighter future waiting for him. But then Malik loses his job and all bets are off.

Gurinder Chadha’s film is an eminently likeable affair, based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiographical book, Greetings From Bury Park. Javed is a charming hero and there are plenty of scenes here to keep audiences entertained – though it definately helps to be Springsteen-literate. The film’s at its best when protagonists are joyfully interracting with the music – a frantic chase around the streets of Luton to the strains of Thunder Road is a standout and I also love the scenes where the Boss’s lyrics are projected onto the landscape as Javed strides determinedly through a storm.

The film’s uneven though, and the hostility between Javed and his father feels a little over-familiar. Furthermore, I’m not sure I quite buy the adoring English teacher, Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), who enters Javed’s composition for a prestigious award without running it by him first. At one-hour-fifty-seven minutes, the film is overstuffed – it  could lose twenty minutes of running time without sacrificing anything in the way of storyline.

That said, this is an entertaining tale and it is nice to relive those early Springsteen tracks in all their glory. I also worshipped at the Boss’s altar back in the day.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

15/09/19

We’re deep into our annual scramble at the Edinburgh Fringe, but there’s a problem. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has opened and I need to see it. Not, I should hasten to add, because I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that – in my opinion – he’s the most overrated film director in history. But, The Cameo is screening the film in 35 mm, using a projector that was made some time in the 1940s and that’s something that the geek in me needs to see. So, a two-hour-and-forty-one minute slot is located in our schedule, and here I sit as the lights dim and the screen kicks into life.

The first thing to say is that the film looks incredible. Light projected through celluloid will always be superior to a digital print. That’s a fact. And I will also add that the film’s musical score is also pretty fantastic, featuring a plethora of sparkling 60s pop classics. But I’m afraid that’s the last good thing I have to say about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The plot: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was once a big name in Hollywood, due to regular starring roles in Western TV shows, but now his star is beginning to wane. He lives in a big house on Cielo Drive and is driven around by his gofer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a lowly caravan a short distance away. Booth too is on his uppers. Once a respected stuntman, he is now reduced to fetching and carrying for Rick. Oh, and the rumour is that back in the day, he murdered his wife. Next door lives the director du jour, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), fresh off the hit film Rosemary’s Baby, and his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And meanwhile, up at Spahn’s Ranch, the Manson family are gearing up for some very dark deeds…

Look, the truth is, I really should like this film. The era fascinates me and so does the central story around which this is based. But what I see onscreen is an interminable trudge through a series of over-extended background stories, with Tarantino spending far too long on telling them and being far too pleased with his evocations of 60s cinema and television. Margot Robbie barely gets any lines of dialogue (which sadly enforces Tarantino’s reputation as a misogynist), the great Bruce Lee is depicted as an absolute dick, and a whole troupe of respected actors – Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino – are brought onscreen to perform five minutes of pointless ‘acting,’ before being summarily dismissed.

And then there’s that fairytale ending, applauded by many film critics as ‘audacious,’ but which to me seems merely dumb and kind of borderline offensive. Tarantino has previous form here as anyone who saw Inglourious Basterds will know.

Look, the man has many fans and this film has already been widely praised by other critics, so maybe I just need to accept that his style of filmmaking is not for me. But nobody is ever going to convince me that he is a director in control of his own process. Two hours and forty one minutes? Really?

But that 35mm print. Now that is class.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans

29/07/19

Chosen simply by virtue of being the only film currently on release that we haven’t seen, Horrible Histories is a cinematic adaptation of one of the much-loved books by Terry Deary and the even more-loved CBBC series – hence that needlessly complicated title. Lovers of the TV shows can rest assured that this is the usual compendium of immensely likable historical humour, with regular references to poo, vomit and uncontrollable bouts of anal wind. My inner eight-year-old found plenty to snigger about, while the adult parts of me enjoyed some clever references to actual historical events.

Skinny misfit Atti (Sebastian Croft) is bored with family life in Rome and longs for some adventure. He gets it, unexpectedly, when his nefarious attempt to earn money by selling bottled ‘gladiator sweat’ earns the ire of the brattish Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts). He promptly banishes Atti to ‘that stain in the corner of the map’ better known as Britain. Now the world’s least-convincing Roman soldier, Atti’s not in Pictish territory for long before he’s kidnapped by Orla (Emilia Jones), a teenage wannabe warrior-woman, desperate to prove to her father, Arghus (Nick Frost), that she has the right to wield a sword. The two youngsters soon take a shine to each other, but – predictably – they are somewhat star-crossed. Meanwhile, Boudicca (Kate Nash) is raising a massive army in order to take on her rotten Roman overlords…

This is rollicking stuff, the jokes hitting the screen with such frequency that if you don’t like the first one, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in just a few moments. The humour largely comes from filtering historical references through a contemporary perspective – Atti’s parents threatening to limit his ‘scroll time’ being a typical example. Legions of well known actors pop up in cameo roles, with Derek Jacobi even reprising his classic performance as Claudius and Kim Catrall relishing her stint as Nero’s interfering mother, Agrippina. And of course, there are several songs, though for some of the earlier ones, the lyrics are somewhat buried behind an over-exuberant rock accompaniment – a pity, because the lyrics I do manage to hear are playfully witty.

Occasionally, the budget restraints show: the pitched battles never seem to feature quite enough extras, and there clearly wasn’t enough dosh to buy Paulinus (Rupert Graves) some decent horse riding lessons… but overall this is a fun romp that will keep all but the pickiest audience members suitably entertained. There are no kids in evidence at the showing we attend, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

There’s plenteous laughticus.

4 stars

Philip Caveney