American Animals

10/09/18

True life heist movies.

You wait for ages and then two come along at the same time. The ‘other’ film, is of course, the uninspiring plod-fest that is King of Thieves, but Bart Layton’s American Animals is an altogether more exciting proposition. This is a heist movie like no other – indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it knocks the genre upside down and inside out, creating something quite unique in the process. It’s neither a documentary nor a fictionalised account of actual events, but an inspired amalgam of the two. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The news that Layton is now a favourite to step into the vacant slot at the helm of the next Bond movie seems somehow… odd. Of course, I understand the appeal of taking on such a potentially career-boosting project but, after this beauty, it would feel decidedly like a step down.

It’s 2003 and a bunch of disaffected students at the oddly named Transylvania University in Kentucky decide to try and steal some books from their campus library. These are no ordinary books, but priceless (and huge) first edition bird studies by Audubon, worth millions of dollars and guarded only by one elderly female librarian. Spencer Rhinehard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) first formulate the idea and then, as it gradually moves towards becoming a reality, they recruit casual acquaintances Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Renner) to help them bring it to fruition. At first, it’s like a playful fantasy, with the ringleaders watching famous heist movies for inspiration, experimenting with disguises and meticulously drawing up their plans. But as the actual event looms ever closer, things begin to get more serious.

The events of American Animals are skilfully cut with interviews with the real life robbers and their parents, many of whom are clearly still in shock about what happened. The brilliance of Layton’s film is the way he keeps switching the point of view, sometimes featuring the real perpetrators in the same frame as the actors who play them, until we’re no longer sure whose narrative we are actually following and which version of the story we should believe. It’s an audacious approach that really pays off.

When we come to the events of the crime itself, the proceedings turn very dark indeed, emphasising the fact that slick, cool heists really are a product of fiction. This robbery is frantic and sweaty and punctuated with expletives – and, of course, unlike the fantasy, there really is a victim here, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (played by Ann Dowd, but also seen as herself, reflecting on her ill-treatment). The reality is, of course, that absolutely nothing goes to plan, the perpetrators are way out of their depth and, once the robbery is over, they are plunged into a world of dread as they await their inevitable fate.

Layton has created something very special here, something that’s worlds away from the workmanlike tropes of the James Bond franchise. I hope he continues to pursue his own projects, because films of this quality don’t come along very often.

In short, don’t miss this; it really is a stunner.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Children Act

10/09/18

Oh dear. I’m a little bit annoyed with The Children Act. Which is clearly not an ideal response. I can’t deny it looks good, and Emma Thompson’s star shines as brightly as it ever did (she’s magnificent, really; I am a true fan of her work). The supporting cast are pretty marvellous too. And yet… and yet.

My issues are all with the story, adapted for the screen by Ian McEwan from his 2014 novel. Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a high court judge who earns her daily crust making life and death decisions: is it right to sacrifice a conjoined baby to give his twin a better chance of survival? Even if his parents don’t agree? There are no easy answers to the dilemmas she faces, but she is a consummate professional, dedicated and compassionate,  focused and fair-minded.

And then, one explosive weekend, her husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci), reveals that he’s unhappy with the way she’s been neglecting their marriage and tells her he wants to have an affair. Reeling, Fiona answers her phone as Jack’s packing his suitcase, and picks up an urgent case. A Jehovah’s Witness teenager is refusing a blood transfusion; his doctors want to force life-saving treatment on the boy. This should be run-of-the-mill for Fiona, but she’s out of whack, thrown off by her own emotional turmoil. She visits seventeen-year-old Adam (Fionn Whitehead) in hospital, learns more about the leukaemia that threatens his life, asks him what he really wants.

Later, it transpires that what Adam wants is more than Fiona can give: he’s obsessed with her, phoning her, writing letters to her, asking her if he can live with her as a lodger or an odd-job man; he wants to learn from her. But I don’t really understand the underlying message here; I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from this. Is the implication that Fiona should invest more in the boy? Or that she’s transgressed by opening up as much as she has? What’s the point of this final third; what is it trying to say?

Some of what’s implied may not be deliberate, but there are a few points that keep niggling at me. For example, the whole Jehovah’s Witness/blood transfusion thing. Why is this the only story I ever hear about the JW church (there is, I concede, a refreshingly different take in Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice)? It’s just another unfathomable religious stricture, and one that can only affect a tiny minority. Why does it have so much traction in fiction and film? Perhaps it’s just too soon after (the much better) Apostasy?

There’s also the vexed question of misogynistic stereotypes: why does Fiona Maye have to suffer for a successful career? She’s sacrificed her marriage; she’s sad about not making time to have children. Why? Why is this always the narrative? It’s boring and annoying to meet this cliché again. Her husband seems to be holding down his career okay, and he can fit in dinner and tennis and a semblance of a social life. Why can’t it be the same for her?

Ach, it’s a shame, because the acting really is sublime. I’m especially impressed by Jason Watkins’ turn as Maye’s hapless lackey, Nigel – an object lesson in the art of maximising the impact of what is really a small role. And the glimpse into the life of a judge is fascinating too; this feels as if it could be something better, if only it were less… restrained. As it stands, it doesn’t really work for me.

3.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Seagull

09/09/18

The name Anton Chekov inevitably brings with it an expectation of lashings of doom and gloom. How many visits to the theatre have yielded hours of miserable people staring bleakly out at fields of wheat and talking about suicide? So it’s heartening to note that this version of The Seagull, directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Steve Karam, has a lightness of touch about it that makes it feel downright sprightly – not a word you’d usually associate with the Russian playwright.

The action takes place on the country estate of Pjotr (Brian Dennehey), the ailing older brother of successful actress Irina (Annette Bening). Here, upstate New York stands in for the Russian countryside, but manages to look convincing enough, at least to my untrained eye. Irina’s son, budding playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), also lives on the estate, and is currently involved in a romance with local girl, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is his muse and the main actress in his fledgling symbolist play, which they are planning to perform for their summer visitors. Irina arrives from Moscow with her latest conquest in tow. He is the incredibly successful writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) and, therefore, a bit of a trophy for Irina to show off. Konstantin is already intensely jealous of the man’s success and that’s before Nina starts flirting outrageously with him.

Meanwhile, Konstantin is completely oblivious to the fact that the estate steward’s daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), is completely besotted with him; she, in turn, is devoutly loved by impoverished local schoolmaster, Mikhail (Michael Zegen), of whom he has a very low opinion. It’s clearly going to end badly and, this being Chekov, of course, there is some tragedy waiting in the wings, but the journey towards it passes so pleasurably, it’s never feels like an imposition.

Bening’s performance as the incredibly vain and manipulative Irena, is an absolute joy, while Moss (top-billed here, no doubt because of the success of The Handmaid’s Tale) manages to make Masha’s drink-fuelled gloom at her own failings quite hilarious. Ronan is every bit as good as she always is and I particularly enjoy John Tenney’s portrayal of the pragmatic Doctor Dorn, a man who spends all of his time pouring oil onto troubled waters, consoling the lovelorn and tending the wounded.

Chekov can be a bit like medicine. You know it’s good for you and you know you really ought to have it, but he can sometimes leave a bad taste. Not here though. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed the playwright’s work as much as this.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Nests

08/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Xana Marwick’s Nests is a compelling play, with an appealing dream-like quality. It’s unusual: the gritty subject matter ought perhaps to clash with the whimsical storytelling, but – somehow – it really works.

We’re in a clearing in a forest, home to ‘the father’ (David MacKay), an alcoholic eking an existence by selling everything he owns. There’s not much left: a run-down caravan, a broken drum kit, a guitar and a few pots and pans. But he can scrape together funds for his cheap cider habit, and he’s harming no one but himself.

But even this miserable dwelling is appealing to ‘the boy’ (Ashleigh More), a lost and forgotten child in need of sustenance and care. Outcasts, invisible, united by their vulnerability, the pair forge an unlikely partnership, each fulfilling for the other the role of missing parent/child.

It’s beautifully told, at once visceral and ethereal. It’s tragic, yes, but it’s funny too, and the characters are bold and true. Mackay imbues the father with a strange fragility, despite his coarse language and quick temper, and Ashleigh More is equally affecting: the boy’s swagger and bravado undercut with deep sorrow, his love of crows particularly resonant.

I especially like the cartoon crows (animated by Kate Charter and Claire Lamond). They add to the sense of unreality, flitting from screen to screen and interacting with the boy; there’s a real playfulness here, and it’s extremely engaging.

This production, by Frozen Charlotte and Stadium Rock, is a real gem, and I’m genuinely moved by it.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Yardie

06/09/18

Idris Elba’s debut feature film is an interesting one. Okay, so it’s a little patchy, but there’s real heart here, and energy, and some fabulous performances. Based on the cult novel by Victor Headley, this is as much a character study as anything else, and lead actor Aml Ameen (D), is mesmerising in the central role.

We start off in 70s Jamaica, where young D lives with his brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary). Jerry is a gentle soul, keen to broker peace between rival gangs, and make Kingston a safer place. But, having secured a truce, the triumphant party he hosts in No-Man’s-Land is abruptly shattered by a teenager wielding a gun. Jerry is killed, and D’s life is changed forever.

We next see him ten years later, and he’s a troubled man, struggling to repress his rage. He’s been taken under the wing of one of the gang leaders, King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), whose music production company tells only half the story of his wealth. Fox is also a drug dealer, and, when D’s anger at his brother’s murder threatens his business, D is quickly dispatched to London, to sell a large batch of cocaine to Fox’s London connection, Rico (Stephen Graham).

But D’s path does not run smoothly in the UK; he’s too full of fury to seek a quiet life. Haunted by his brother’s memory, D seems determined to self-destruct, jeopardising everything, including his relationship with Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), his childhood sweetheart, and their daughter, Vanessa (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell).

Where this film works is in the evocation of the period, the nightlife and the music. It looks fantastic, all vibrancy and colour, and the atmosphere, fuelled by an urgent reggae soundtrack, is electric. But there’s something lacking in the plotting, I think, a strange lack of intensity in D’s quest for revenge that doesn’t quite match the violence he eventually unleashes. Some of the London criminals feel like caricatures, and at times it’s hard to understand what D’s motivation is.

Still, it’s an eminently watchable movie, and the imagery is still imprinted on my mind.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Cold War

05/09/18

Pawel Pawlikowski’s film – about the long and turbulent relationship of a couple of star-crossed lovers in post-war Poland – is a little gem. Ravishingly shot in high contrast black and white by Lukasz Zan, and projected in a squarish ratio that serves to accentuate the period look, this somehow manages to feel like an epic movie, despite boasting a modest running time of just under 90 minutes. Based on the story of the director’s own parents, it’s a delightful evocation of a lost age.

It’s 1949 and musician Wiktor (Thomasz Kot) and his broadcaster girlfriend, Irena (Agata Kulesza), are travelling the backroads of Poland, searching for local talent to recruit for a touring production that will celebrate Polish folk music. At one of the auditions, Wiktor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a headstrong and talented young singer who is determined to be one of the production’s stars. Irena clearly doesn’t care for Zula, who has a rather troubled past – but Wiktor is immediately smitten by her charms and it’s not long before the two of them are engaged in a passionate affair.

The subsequent musical production becomes a great success, but Wiktor and Irena are dismayed when pressure is exerted upon the company to include songs that extoll the virtues of Josef Stalin. On a visit to East Berlin, Wiktor decides to take the opportunity to defect to the West and begs Zula to accompany him. She doesn’t go, but their paths are destined to cross, again and again, as the 1950s unfold…

Featuring enigmatic performances from the two leads and set in a whole series of European locations, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the self-destructive power of the couple’s extended liaison, as they meet, part and meet again. There’s an extraordinary sequence in a Paris jazz club, where a bored and moody Zula is suddenly enervated by the playing of Rock Around the Clock and leaps up to cavort drunkenly around the dance floor. It’s a lovely scene but it’s also an era defining moment, the proclamation of the huge changes that are soon to come, for Wiktor and Zula and, indeed, the world.

The intensity of the couple’s love ultimately has tragic ramifications, which – though deeply affecting – are never allowed to become sentimental. It’s easy to see why Cold War was awarded the ‘best director’ gong at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, though it’s doubtless been said many times before, they really don’t make films like this any more. Except of course, in this case, they have.

It most likely won’t be showing at your local multiplex, but if there’s an independent cinema near you, do seek this one out – it’s a delight from start to finish.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

King of Thieves

04/09/18

The Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary of April 2015 was always destined to be a contender for big screen dramatisation. This intriguing story, about a bunch of crooked old age pensioners who somehow manage to pull off the biggest theft in history, sounds promising enough on paper and, just three short years after the event, here’s the film, directed by James ‘The Theory of Everything‘ Marsh and boasting a clutch of revered veteran actors in the leading roles. What could possibly go wrong? But what promises to be a cracking crime drama turns out to be more of a mystery movie – the biggest mystery of all being who ever thought this script was ready to go before the cameras. I hate to say it, but this is criminal in the worst sense of the word.

Michael Caine plays Brian Reader, former money launderer, now going straight mostly due to the influence of his wife, Lyn. Played by Francesca Annis, she is the only female to get any lines in this film. Make the most of them, because within minutes of the opening, she is brown bread, Brian is lonely and he’s suddenly open to interesting offers. When a mysterious young man named Basil approaches him proposing one last job, Brian decides to pull together a bunch of his old cronies and go along with the idea. Yes, they’re going to rob Hatton Garden, but guess what? Basil has a key to the building, which somebody lent him ages ago and then forgot about (I know – don’t ask).

Soon Brian has his crew in place. They are Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), ‘Kenny’ Collins (Tom Courtenay), Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and Danny James (Ray Winstone). Kenny also brings in his regular fence, Billy ‘the Fish’ Lincoln (Michael Gambon), who he thinks will come in very handy when they’re trying to dispose of stolen diamonds. Getting into the building turns out to be deceptively easy, but of course, no heist ever goes exactly to plan…

You’d think the biggest obstacle in the crooks’ way would be the brick wall they have to drill through but, trust me, this is nothing when compared to the film’s plodding script. It tries to be a treatise on the indignities of ageing but, instead, seems happy enough to have the thieves sitting around complaining about their respective ailments, or how they can’t figure out how to use the internet. Seriously, if you’ve managed to pull together such a complement of respected actors, it might be a good idea to give them some witty dialogue to deliver, but there’s never any danger of that. It’s hard to describe the dismal feeling of watching the great Michael Gambon reduced to the role of an incontinent fish seller, whose few words of dialogue mostly begin with the letter F. Likewise, Jim Broadbent is generally a delight on screen, but who decided to ask him to play a hard man? Courtenay’s character is deaf, which is hilarious in itself, right? And as for Winstone… well, let’s not even go there. Suffice to say this isn’t up there with his work on  Nil By Mouth.

It’s only close to the film’s conclusion where we get a glimpse of what this could have been,  a brief sequence where footage of each character is intercut with glimpses of the actors in their heyday. But it’s too little, too late – and, sadly, by the end of King of Thieves, it’s not just the vault wall that’s been bored.

You have been warned.

2.4 stars

Philip Caveney