Film

Greta

29/04/19

Neil Jordan is always an interesting director. From his debut with Angel in 1981, through Hollywood blockbusters like Interview With the Vampire, to little jewels like Breakfast on Pluto, he has steadfastly resisted being confined to a particular genre, instead choosing to nip effortlessly back and forth across various categories with alacrity. Greta sees him diving into an old-school psychological thriller, once again tearing up the rule book as he goes, and emerging with something gloriously off-kilter.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) lives in a swish Tribeca apartment with her rich and spoiled flat mate, Erica (Maika Monroe),  earning her rent money as a waitress in a swish Manhattan restaurant. Heading home from work on the subway one night, she chances upon a handbag, which contains the ID for Greta Hildeg (Isabelle Huppert). Though Erica urges Frances to spend the bundle of money that’s also in there,  she decides to do the decent thing and return it to the owner, who turns out to be a lonely piano teacher. Frances has recently lost her mother, and she instantly warms to Greta’s maternal and affectionate manner.

Much to Erica’s disgust, Frances and Greta quickly form a friendship, but Greta soon begins to overstep the mark, coming on way too strong. When Frances makes a chilling discovery in Greta’s apartment, she attempts to call a halt to the friendship, but Greta does not want it to end and seems prepared to go to any lengths in order to keep Frances in her clutches…

This is by no means a perfect film – indeed, there’s a plot twist at one point that frankly beggars belief – but Jordan is very adept at using the tropes of more conventional horror movies to create almost unbearable levels of suspense, something he manages to maintain until the very final frame. It’s refreshing too to see a film that offers three terrific lead roles for women, while the male cast members are merely incidental characters. That said, I felt a tad sorry for Jordan’s old comrade, Stephen Rea, lumbered with a thankless cameo as a detective, stumbling towards his own destruction. Huppert is terrific in the title role (so good that I’m almost ready to forgive her for her involvement in the repellant Elle) and Moretz and Monroe also acquit themselves well.

Given the unfortunate timing of its release (pitched against the audience-gobbling behemoth that is Avengers: End Game) Greta has inevitably been somewhat lost in the shuffle, which is a great shame because – that dodgy plot device notwithstanding – there’s plenty to recommend in this wiry, old-fashioned thriller.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Eighth Grade

28/04/19

I love a good coming-of-age story, and Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a fine example of the genre. It’s charming and excruciating in equal measure, specific to contemporary America yet universal in its appeal. We haven’t all grown up with social media, but we have all endured those painful teenage years, negotiating the complexities of school and home, trying to find where we fit in.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school; she’s lonely and self-conscious, desperate to dispel the myth that she is ‘quiet.’ She vlogs a more outgoing version of herself, but no one seems to be watching; she’s a voyeur, viewing the world through the prism of social media, willing herself to live up to the persona she projects online. Her to-do list is dreadfully sad: get a best friend, be there for them no matter what. She doesn’t want much, but even these small dreams seem beyond her reach.

What’s clever here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Kayla isn’t odd or unusual; she’s a dorky, awkward everykid. Her dad, Mark (Josh Hamiltion) is a loving parent (her mum is absent; she ‘left’ when Kayla was little, but we don’t find out why, and it doesn’t seem to be a real issue). She isn’t bullied at school; she’s just ignored. Even the stuff that seems scary from the outside – a school shooting drill; an older boy making a pass – doesn’t materialise into anything bigger than Kayla can cope with. This is not a sensationalist film.

Elsie Fisher is delightful in the lead role, as natural and appealing as it’s possible to be. Her vulnerabilities are writ large, but so is her underlying optimism, and the kindness that defines the character. Hamilton is also terrific as Kayla’s devoted dad, patiently struggling to communicate with a daughter who is monosyllabic in his presence, and who reacts angrily to his well-meaning attempts to offer reassurance and love. Theirs is a convincing relationship, a beacon of hope.

As you might expect, there is a lot of humour here too: Burnham is a comedian, after all. But it’s a gentle sort of comedy, delivered with affection; this is, ultimately, life-affirming stuff.

A heart-warming little movie – and one that might just make you want to cut those moody teenagers some slack…

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Zookeeper’s Wife

27/04/19

Like so many recent movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon a true story, even if closer examination quickly reveals that (as ever) several major liberties have been taken with the facts in order to dramatise the proceedings. But there is a remarkable tale at the heart of this film and it’s evident that Atonina and Jan Zabinski were an extraordinarily brave couple, who really did risk their lives in order to save those of around three hundred Jewish people during the Second World War.

The film opens in 1939, when Antonia (Jessica Chastaine) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the proud owners of the Warsaw Zoo. There’s an idyllic, chocolate-boxy feel to the early scenes, as Antonina pedals cheerfully around the zoo grounds dispensing love and care to the resident creatures – doubtless intended to contrast with the grim realities to come. And come they do, because, of course, pretty soon Warsaw has been invaded by the German army and the zoo devastated by bombing raids.  An acquaintance of the Zabinskis, German zoologist (and Nazi) Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), offers to take the zoo’s rarer species to Germany ‘for safe keeping’. He also exhibits evident romantic interest in Antonina.

The Zabinskis consequently decide to exploit this interest by offering to turn their zoo into a massive pig farm, using the resulting meat to feed the German troops, something that Heck happily agrees to – but the couple are secretly planning to use the extensive cellars of their zoo to hide Jews, smuggled from the nearby ghetto, in order to help them escape to freedom. It’s a reckless ambition and one that’ll expose them to considerable danger…

This is a decent and perfectly watchable film, built around a strong performance by Chastain in the central role but – even though the story incorporates some devastating events: the heartless rape of a young Jewish girl; the callous murder of two other women;  the desperate plight of Warsaw’s Jewish population – the film never quite manages to generate the emotional power you’d expect from a story like this. I feel somehow distanced from the onscreen horrors and that is a problem.

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting tale plucked from the pages of history, and the courage of the Zabinskis deserves to be celebrated. The good news is the film is available to watch right now on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Sisters Brothers

15/04/19

The western movie has ridden some twisted trails over the years, but few of them are quite as strange as the one followed by The Sisters Brothers. The first feature in English by French director Jacques Audiard, it’s based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick De Witt. It’s a good deal more philosophical than your average oater and it takes it owns sweet time to relate a decidedly bizarre tale.

The titular brothers are hired guns, working for the mysterious Commodore (a thankless non-speaking role for Rutger Hauer). Eli (John C Reilly) is the shy, sensitive one, who’s clearly not cut out for this kind of work, but is nonetheless deadly with a revolver, whenever push comes to shove. He tends to play second fiddle to the more nihilistic Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a habitual drunkard, who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into absolute chaos.

For their latest mission, the brothers are despatched to rendezvous with another hired gun, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), in order to apprehend the charismatic Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man with a spectacular (and, it would seem, almost magical) secret. But when Morris bumps into Warm, he soon falls under the man’s peculiar spell and the two of them quickly become business partners – a move which makes the brothers’ latest mission even more complicated than they expected.

This is a weirdly metaphorical film, where strange images loom out of mythic landscapes – a film where blazing horses career through the night and chunks of gold shimmer invitingly at the bottom of a creek – where opportunities pop up unexpectedly from the sagebrush only to metamorphose into death traps. As the brothers bicker and quarrel their way across the screen, we begin to learn that they are pioneers of their own misfortune, doomed to keep running from the seemingly endless adversaries that are pitched against them – and, even when they too find themselves partnering with their former target, it is only to unleash more dangers.

The Sisters Brothers certainly won’t be for everyone – and, with a running time of just over two hours, it will try the patience of those who want something more straightforward. But once settled into its peculiar rhythm, I find myself beguiled and occasionally startled by it. This is a Western the like of which I’ve never seen before and, trust me, I’ve seen many. I enjoy the ride.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Missing Link

14/04/19

Since its Oscar-winning debut feature Coraline in 2009, Laika Animation has resolutely ploughed its own furrow through the world of stop-motion, steadfastly avoiding the obvious and always maintaining the highest standards. Aardman may be the better-known company, but Laika are more consistent – and they seem to have perfected the trick of creating animations that really are suitable for all ages.

Missing Link is a good case in point. This is the story of fearless Victorian adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a man with an unshakable belief in his own brilliance and a matching resolve to hunt down the mythical creatures of the world. When his attempt to photograph the Loch Ness monster makes him a laughing stock at the Adventurers’ Club, he decides to go in search of the legendary American Sasquatch – and, in a plot strand that owes an unspoken debt to Around the World in 80 Days, even makes a bet with the society’s villainous leader, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry), that he will prove that the creature is more than just a legend. If he succeeds, he will be granted membership. As insurance, Piggot-Dunceby sends evil assassin Willard Stenk (Timothy Oliphant) to ensure that Frost fails to make good on his wager.

Frost soon locates said Sasquatch, whom he quickly dubs Mr Link (Zach Galifianakis). But he is more than a little surprised to discover that this particular Bigfoot can talk, read and even write – indeed, he has penned the letter summoning Frost to meet up with him. He wants more than just an exchange of pleasantries. He wants Frost to take him to meet his closest cousins – the Yetis of far off Tibet…

Everything about Missing Link is spot on – the gorgeous, idiosyncratic animation, the astute characterisation, the fleet footed storyline that scrambles from one thrilling escapade to the next. There are some very funny scenes here, enough to get a Sunday afternoon audience laughing along throughout and there are also several eye-popping sequences that combine the stop-frame puppets with state of the art CGI work, a storm at sea being a particular standout.

It’s also great to note that Zoe Saldana’s adventurer, Adelina Fortnight, is given enough chops to compete on an equal footing with her male companions, whilst neatly sidestepping the possibility of being cast as (ho hum) the film’s love interest.

This is wildly entertaining stuff – and it’s been quite a while since I enjoyed an animated feature quite as much as this one. If you’re looking for the perfect family feature, you can’t go wrong with this.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Highwaymen

11/04/19

In 1967, director Arthur Penn created the unforgettable Bonnie and Clyde. Featuring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in career-defining roles, it treated the young outlaws as folk heroes and their bloody slow-mo deaths in a hail of bullets transformed them into martyrs. It was emotive stuff and few people emerged from a screening dry-eyed.

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen takes an altogether more sober look at their three year reign of terror and concentrates on the two elderly men who ultimately brought them to justice. Indeed, here, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are demoted to the periphery of the action, glimpsed only in longshot until the very end – an approach that somehow serves to accentuate their charisma.

Kevin Costner stars as former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, brought out of comfortable retirement in order to hunt down the seemingly unstoppable duo. He teams up with old comrade, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), and the two ageing men embark on the long quest to find their elusive quarry. Their uncomfortable, odd couple relationship lies at the heart of this film, which is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, the endless vistas of the American plains shimmering enticingly. This is, in many ways, an elegy for the old West, a world where new fangled automobiles struggle to deal with the kind of landscape where only horses previously ran.

Writer John Fusco is interested in the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde, the way they generated a huge fan following in a time of absolute poverty. They were widely seen as Robin Hood figures, outlaws who only ever stole from the rich. The scenes of mass hysteria when the couple’s bullet-riddled corpses are brought before the public are sobering indeed.

It’s interesting to read that the relatives of the real Frank Hamer successfully sued Warner Brothers for defamation of character over his depiction in the Arthur Penn classic. Costner sets the record straight here, playing him as a pragmatist, a man who takes no pleasure in killing them, but sees their deaths as a necessity – mad dogs to be put down in the public’s interest, even if the public don’t realise what’s good for them.

While The Highwaymen doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of high drama, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very different take on a story you may already think you know well. Interested parties will find it on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Black 47

08/04/19

A taciturn soldier deserts the army, heads back to his homeland  and finds that, in his absence, his family has been decimated. Powered by a hunger for revenge, he sets off to exact bloody mayhem on the people who have wronged him.

It sounds like the plot of a typical Clint Eastwood western, but here the army in question is the English forces in Afghanistan, the soldier is Feeney (James Frecheville), his family is based in County Connemara and the year is 1847, when the potato famine is wreaking mayhem on the Irish nation. What’s more, the English landlords are turfing out all tenants who cannot afford their rent, or will not ‘take the soup’ – a free handout that is only given to those who will renounce their Catholic faith and become protestants.

Once Feeney is embarked on his violent mission, old comrade, and former Connaught Ranger, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), is recruited to track him down, working alongside young English officer, Pope (Freddie Fox). But it’s a long journey to bring their man to justice and, as they progress along their corpse-littered route, Hannah begins to realise that the real enemy here is not Feeny, but the oppressive English landlords, who seem to regard the native population as vermin to be eradicated.

Lance Daly’s film, Black 47, was never going to be a big hitter at the box office but, like so many other mid-list titles, has found a home on Netflix. It’s a bleak, hard-hitting movie, beautifully filmed in desaturated colour by Declan Quinn and, while it pulls no punches with its political message, it focuses more on the action scenes, of which there are plenty. There are some superb actors in small roles. Stephen Rea shines as local opportunist, Coneely, and Jim Broadbent, usually such a jovial presence, makes a plausible villain as the sneering, venal Lord Kilmichael. There’s even the presence of rising star, Barry Keoghan, playing (of all things) an English soldier.

Perhaps the film can be accused of a certain heavy-handedness (virtually every English character we meet is a contemptible villain) but this is nonetheless a decent action film that keeps us suitably gripped to the final scene.

4 stars

Philip Caveney