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Nomadland

01/05/21

Disney+

In more usual circumstances, we’d have viewed all the Oscar contenders well before the night of the announcement. In these chastened times, our earliest opportunity to watch 2021’s ‘Best Film’ winner is to catch it on Disney+, the night after its release onto the mighty mouse’s streaming service. As ever we find ourselves longing for a bigger screen, but Nomadland is the kind of film that transcends such considerations. It’s an absolute joy, and in my opinion, fully worthy of its win.

It’s winter 2011 and Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down, due to the recession. Sixty-one years of age and recently widowed, Fern can’t afford to pay rent on a property, so she seizes upon the only option left to her. She packs up a few belongings into her little van and hits the road, looking for whatever temporary work she can get hold of along the way. She first finds a job at an Amazon fulfilment centre through the Christmas break, packing gifts for delivery, where she makes friends with fellow-worker, Linda (Linda May).

Linda tells her about a desert rendezvous in Arizona, run by a man called Bob Wells (like most of the supporting actors in this film, Bob plays himself). Longing for sunnier climes, Fern makes her way South when the Amazon work dries up and learns that are many others in her situation – elderly people who, through no fault of their own, have been cast adrift and abandoned by society. Now they are obliged to work like University students on a break, taking whatever menial work they can find – packing gifts, farming sugar beet, waiting-on in burger bars and cafes – and doing it without complaint.

Fern drifts calmly through the process, taking it all in her stride – and as she travels, the beauties of the ever-changing American landscape are revealed in a painterly style that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick movie. Fern is a beguiling character, plucky, indomitable and self-contained. When somebody says that they’ve heard she is homeless, she replies with evident pride. ‘Oh no, I’m not homeless. Just houseless.’

Writer/director Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary film draws a line that can be traced back to the pioneers of the Old West – or perhaps, more accurately, to the migrant workers of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I have despaired of America recently, but this film serves to remind me that so many of its inhabitants have qualities to be admired – it’s just the political system that governs them that should be condemned for treating them so shoddily. And yet, unusually, this is also a film that has no real villains; indeed, pretty much everyone Fern encounters treats her respectfully, offering her help, support and comradeship.

For a time she falls in with fellow wanderer, Dave (David Strathairn), and the two of them seem to be a good fit – but when he’s offered a way out of his situation, he’d be a fool not to take it. Wouldn’t he?

Calm, thoughtful and inspiring, Nomadland is a timely reminder that we need to value the right things in life. Like the pieces of crockery Fern carries with her, gifted to her by her late father, they are just things. Once broken, they become meaningless. Perhaps they always were. Zhao’s ultimate message seems to be that the qualities we carry within us through life are more important than the baggage we acquire along the way.

And if I’m in danger of sounding like a talking fridge magnet here, please don’t be put off.

This really is a very special film.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Penguin Bloom

29/03/21

Netflix

The lockdown rolls relentlessly on, and we’re reduced to seeking out those films which, in normal times, we’d steer well clear of. Penguin Bloom is one such feature, sporting as it does a storyline that threatens to be a little too saccharine for comfort. The fact that it turns out to be a true story and – as a series of genuine photographs over the end credits proudly attests – sticks very closely to what actually happened, helps no end. So does director Glendyn Ivin’s ability to stay just the right side of mawkishness throughout. Whenever things threaten to tip over into the land of treacle, Ivin offers us a nasty flashback or a vitriolic outburst, just to make sure we appreciate the very real tragedy of the tale.

Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, making a decent fist of an Australian accent) live a carefree existence in an idyllic home somewhere in Australia, with their three sons. Cameron is a photographer by trade and Sam, when not making her own honey, is a keen surfer. But everything changes irrevocably on a family holiday to Thailand, when oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) discovers a secluded roof garden above their hotel and leads his mother up there to take in the scenery.

However, a dodgy bit of building work quickly puts paid to all the fun and games, as Sam takes a horrific fall from the roof and winds up with a damaged spine, paralysed from the waist down.

Once back home, despite everybody’s best efforts, she fails to come to terms with her situation and, all too understandably, begins to descend into depression. Then Noah discovers a fledgling magpie that has fallen from its nest and persuades his parents to let him bring her into the house. He promptly dubs the bird Penguin (Peng for short) and it isn’t long before the creature has become a vital member of the Bloom family. Sam is at first resistant to Peng’s feathery charms, but as time moves on, she warms to her – and of course, as she works towards helping Peng to learn to fly, so Sam manages to spread her own wings…

See, that does sound horribly sentimental, doesn’t it? And perhaps, if I’m honest, there is a streak of that in here, but what the heck, this actually happened and maybe I need to cut the Blooms some slack. If there is a problem with the movie, it’s one of continuity. Peng looks markedly different in just about every shot, but as the credits eventually reveal, ten individual birds played the title role, so perhaps it isn’t exactly surprising: and, let’s face it, CGI birds never really convince, no matter how much cash you throw at them. And these stunt magpies, if rumour is to be believed, actually work for birdseed. Oh and before I forget, Sam’s mother Jan, is played by Jacki Weaver, who actually does have some authority here (see what I did there?).

Ultimately, Penguin Bloom turns out to be an agreeable way to spend an hour or so and, until cinemas finally reopen their doors, we’re going to have to keep sifting through the bowels of our streaming services in a never-ending quest to find agreeable ways for movie fans to pass their time.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020

27/12/20

Netflix

I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

I’m Thinking of Ending it All

14/09/20

Charlie Kaufman’s reputation for weirdness precedes him, but to my mind, he can be  inconsistent: for every Anomalisa or Being John Malkovich, there’s an Adaptation or a Synochade, New York lurking in the wings, films that – despite flashes of genuine brilliance – have a tendency to lapse into events that are just plain puzzling. And it’s somewhere in this hinterland that Kaufman’s latest offering belongs. 

If the title sounds ominous, don’t be misled. Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is simply thinking of ending her relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons) after six weeks of going out with him. (I can’t say I blame her: he’s a cheerless oaf, much given to scowling furiously.) Unfortunately, she has agreed to accompany him on her first visit to meet his parents, an assignation that requires a long, long drive through the falling snow. There follows a seemingly endless sequence where the two of them drive and talk and then Young Woman treats Jake to an impromptu performance of her latest poem, which goes on way, WAY longer than it needs to. I suspect this is the point, but it’s not a promising introduction to proceedings.

Then, the couple arrive at their destination, where Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis) are waiting to meet them. The resulting visit is so deliciously deranged that the film is suddenly eminently watchable – indeed, if the rest of it were up to this standard, we’d be talking a lot more stars. The two parents appear to be different ages every time we see them, and there are lots of parenthood issues as well as something very creepy lurking in the cellar…

But, all too soon, the protagonists are back in the car and heading homeward through the snow, where Young Woman is delivering (at length) her opinion of a much revered John Cassavetes film. This feels suspiciously like an authorial criticism, and the head of steam built up by our time spent with Jake’s parents promptly evaporates. Just as I’m thinking of ending I’m Thinking of Ending It All, Young Woman and Jake stop off at the World’s creepiest ice cream parlour, and suddenly the film is riveting all over again… 

I’ve used this analogy before but this is a real curate’s egg of a film – good in parts, sometimes much too good to be ignored – but, while the destinations featured herein are really rewarding, the seemingly interminable journeys between them are frankly on the dull side.

The film is right there on Netflix, ready to view at the touch of a button, but be warned, your patience may be tested.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Pinocchio

13/09/20

Pinocchio has long been a bit of a touchstone story for me. I saw the Disney version when I was a kid and was deliciously terrified by it – indeed, I still consider it to be Walt’s masterpiece. My own novel, Mr Sparks, was an unashamed riff on Carlo Collodi’s original story and, like many, I’m eagerly awaiting Guillermo del Toro’s live action version of the tale, though it’s anybody’s guess when that might arrive. In the meantime, here’s Matteo Garrone’s interpretation, and it’s certainly arresting enough to keep me happy while I’m waiting for Guillermo to get his act together. 

Garrone’s Pinocchio is suitably dark and makes no bones about the poverty afflicting most of the characters. In this downbeat version of the story, Geppeto (Roberto Benigni) has been reduced to begging for scraps of food and, when he asks a local carpenter for an off-cut of wood, so he can make himself the son he’s never had, he’s fobbed off with a log that seems unable to stay in one place for more than two minutes.

Soon enough, Geppetto has crafted the wood into Pinocchio (Federico Lelapi), who – like his progenitor – doesn’t seem happy to sit around and do what’s expected of him. He’s soon racing recklessly off across the countryside, where he encounters Gatto (Rocco Papaleo) and Volpe (Massino Cecchari), two conniving rapscallions, who set about swindling the boy out of the only bit of money he has.

And of course, there’s the Blue Fairy, played by Alida Baldari Calabria in her youth and Marine Vacth in her older incarnation.

Sticking fairly close to Collodi’s original, Garrone offers a darkly magical tale, which unfolds at a leisurely pace, blessed with the handsome cinematography of Nicolai Bruel – but parents take heed, the film’s PG certificate isn’t just there for fun and there are some scenes that may upset younger viewers, particularly a lengthy sequence where the wooden boy is hanged. But older kids and their parents will have a good time.

There’s no CGI in evidence, but the ingenious mechanical effects are superbly done, especially the delightful invention of a woman who is essentially a giant snail, leaving a slippery trail in her wake. The film has been dubbed into English, but I won’t hold that against it. With such lean pickings on offer at the cinema, this is certainly one worth catching.

And best of all, there’s not a jolly singalong in sight.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Les Miserables

08/09/20

This is not, as you might reasonably have expected, a musical featuring people in period costume running around Paris and warbling endlessly about the French revolution. This Palme D’or Jury winner is a gritty, contemporary drama, set in Montfermeil where Victor Hugo penned his most famous novel. It’s now been transformed into an edgy, crime-ridden neighbourhood where drugs and prostitution are rife and where different cultures struggle for supremacy.

New cop on the block, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) finds himself teamed with veteran twosome, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and his first day on the job becomes a brutal schooling in the art of bending the rules. Chris and Gwada have established their own way of doing things and it’s made very clear from the get-go, that Stéphane is expected to fall into line. But when hard-knock kid Issa (Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from a travelling circus, he unwittingly sparks off a whole series of events that threaten to erupt into violence on a major scale.

Writer/director Ladj Ly rarely puts a foot wrong here. He’s careful to ensure that nobody is allowed to become a total villain, just as surely as nobody is picked out as a hero. The entire cast of Les Miserables exist somewhere in a twilight hinterland somewhere in between the two. These are people trying to keep their heads above water in a hard-bitten world that takes no prisoners; and when the young black gangs that haunt the area feel compelled to rise up in a revolution of their own, it’s hard not to sympathise with their plight. They represent a strata of society that are being punished for just daring to exist.

As Ly steadily cranks up the heat beneath his characters, so the tension rises and the story exert an increasingly powerful grip, until it all explodes into a cataclysmic – and brilliantly judged – crescendo.

This is incendiary stuff that will have you gripped from start to finish.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Babyteeth

02/09/20

Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is sixteen years old and going through a rough time. Already alienated from her schoolmates, struggling to co-exist with her concert-pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis) and her psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), she’s also trying to keep things together as a terminal illness exerts an increasingly powerful grip upon her.

So when she falls head-over-heels for local tearaway, Moses (Toby Wallace), a free-living, drug-abusing twenty-something, her parents are far from delighted at his unexpected appearance in their suburban home – particularly when his urgent need for drug money prompts him to try and rob the place. But Moses is Milla’s first romantic crush and he’s almost certain to be her last… so Anna and Henry realise they are going to have to let her take the lead on this.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Babyteeth is its steadfast refusal to allow any of the usual ‘brave victim’ clichés to step into the mix. Indeed, for quite some time, Milla’s cancer is barely mentioned, so when it finally does step into the frame, it delivers something of a gut punch.

Scanlen, last seen as the least interesting character in Little Women, is a revelation here, quietly dominating the screen with her sparky presence. Wallace too does a fabulous job of making the initially deeply unlikable Moses into a fully formed character, redeemed both by Milla’s love for him and by her parents’ touching decision to allow him into the family fold. This could have been extremely mawkish, but is so adeptly handled that it really isn’t. Davis and Mendelsohn too submit nuanced performances that make them so much more than just supporting players. We share their anxieties, their frustrations and their unswerving devotion to the daughter they love.

Babyteeth marks the assured directorial debut of actor Shannon Murphy, and she’s aided and abetted by Rita Kalnejais’s inventive screenplay, the story punctuated by a series of quirky chapter headings, giving this the feel of a superior teen novel.

The only tragedy is one of timing. There are only a handful of people at the afternoon screening we attend and that’s a shame. In safer times, I have no doubt, this would be pulling in decent crowds and deservedly so. It’s an affecting story – and expertly told.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Removed

29/09/20

Traverse Theatre Online

Written by Fionnuala Kennedy, originally performed at The Brian Friel Theatre in Belfast and subsequently shown at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Removed is based on a series of interviews the playwright conducted with young people in care. The result is this searing monologue, poignantly performed by Conor O’Donnell as Adam.

Adam’s story is sadly an all too familiar one. When his alcoholic mother is unable to provide the right level of care for Adam and his younger brother, the boys find themselves consigned to the tender mercies of a whole series of foster parents and unsuitable homes. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the powerful bond between them is being eroded and the two of them are destined to be separated. Adam’s attempts to maintain the relationship all come to naught.

O’Donnell’s disarming charm is deceptive; behind that confident smile we are allowed glimpses of the pain that Adam has suffered over the years – the humiliation and regret. This is a powerful narrative that will occasionally push viewers to the edge of tears. The simple but effective production design by Conan McIvor ensures that this never feels like ‘just another worthy monologue.’

The systematic failings of the care system are vividly displayed here along with its many contradictions. Of course children cannot be left with parents who are incapable of looking after them, but the alternatives need to be far better than those currently offered. As Adam details the many ordeals he is obliged to face on a daily basis, his story kindles a powerful sense of outrage. Is this really the best solution that society can offer to people like him? Is this honestly a suitable response from a so-called civilised society?

Removed is a truly affecting drama that deserves to reach the widest possible audience. It’s available to watch online, right now.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Declan

26/08/20

Traverse Theatre Online

First seen by B&B  at The Traverse Theatre in June 2018, Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley scored a five star review from us and, some time thereafter, went on to a run of acclaimed performances at London’s Soho Theatre.

Now, lockdown has spawned a companion piece, once again written by Hurley and starring Lorn Macdonald, who, in this pithy, foul-mouthed monologue, offers the same basic story from a different perspective, that of the antagonist. 

Like so many lockdown projects, this thirty minute film has necessitated an inventive approach from the production team in order to make it so much more than just a static talking head scenario – and they’ve delivered big time. There are gorgeous animated cartoon inserts by Nisan Yetkin in the style of Declan’s distinctive artwork, and a series of exterior scenes shot in some memorable Edinburgh locations. 

Furthermore, there are scenes featuring ‘Declan’ (Angus Taylor), who we understand is playing the character in the fictionalised account of his story as written by Libby, the woman the other Declan meets on Salisbury Crags, who befriends him and then ‘steals his life.’

 As the play proceeds, we become increasingly unsure which of the two men is actually real. ‘Fuckin’ meta,’ as Declan is so fond of saying. (Especially, as – of course – they’re both actors and ‘Declan’ is as much of a construct as he ever was…)

This is a striking piece of filmed theatre. I’m not certain that a knowledge of the original play is absolutely essential to the enjoyment of it, but I think it helps. Having seen and loved Mouthpiece, I can’t unknow it  (which is quite meta all by itself). But one thing’s for sure, you certainly won’t be bored by this. McDonald and Taylor are clearly actors to watch out for in the future and Hurley too, is a major talent (as anyone who saw his underrated feature film Beats will surely attest). 

Short, punchy and inventive, Declan is well worth your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney