Amazon Prime

Boiling Point

14/02/22

Amazon Prime Video

Stephen Graham is one of the most ubiquitous actors in the business. This is not to detract from his considerable powers as a performer, but he seems to be popping up all over the place in a whole range of different guises. Boiling Point, written and directed by Philip Barantini (and developed from his 2019 short of the same name), features Graham as head chef Andy Jones, currently helming one of Dalston’s trendiest and most in-demand fine-dining restaurants. Christmas is coming but Andy hasn’t got time to sit back and soak up the festive vibes. He’s running late.

When we first encounter him, he’s already in motion, trying to get to the restaurant for a sold-out pre- Christmas sitting, whilst fielding angry phone calls from the wife he’s recently separated from. She wants to know why he hasn’t been in touch to wish his son a happy birthday. Awkward.

It’s just the start of a breathless journey into a world of relentless high pressure – indeed, this may just qualify as the most stressful viewing experience I’ve had since Uncut Gems – and I mean that in a good way. The conceit here is that Andy’s night is ingeniously filmed in one continuous tracking shot, a device that only serves to amplify the ensuing claustrophobic madness. Unlike many films that are cunningly created using hidden edits, this is the real McCoy. One can only wonder at the pressure the actors must have been under to keep the casserole bubbling. (Trivia fans might care to know that the crew only had time for four takes – and they used the third!)

Once at the restaurant Andy has more problems waiting for him. An officious environmental health inspector is in the process of downgrading the venue’s certificate from five stars to a three; Andy’s team leader, Carly (Vinette Robinson), is pressing him for a wage increase; and it turns out that his old boss, celebrity chef Alistair Skye (Jason Flemying) has booked in to dine and has brought influential food critic Sarah Southworth (Lourdes Faberes) along as his guest…

Throw in the Instagram influencers who want something that’s not actually on the menu, and a boorish customer who keeps insulting the waiters, and you have a recipe for disaster.

What follows can only be described as riveting viewing. There are arguments, misunderstandings, conflicts and catastrophes for Andy to handle and, as the proceedings go from bad to worse, we learn more about his current situation and realise that his career – and possibly his life – is hanging in the balance. As the temperature steadily rises under a metaphorical pressure cooker, we actually relish the leisurely moment where one of the dishwashers strolls outside to empty the rubbish bins, before returning to the madness.

I have only one issue: one particular impending crisis is too heavily signposted, so when it finally comes to fruition, all the dramatic tension has been squandered.

But I’m nitpicking. All kudos to Barantini and cinematographer Matthew Lewis, who come close to rivalling the genius of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, another genuine one-shot wonder. Those who enjoy propulsive, high stakes entertainment should strap themselves in for a memorable ride.

Those of you who hanker after a career in fine dining… maybe this frenetic feast won’t be to your taste.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Being the Ricardos

11/01/22

Amazon Prime Video

I am actually old enough to remember watching I Love Lucy as a child – and can recall laughing out loud at the onscreen antics – though a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that the show only launched in the year of my birth and ended in 1957, so I was probably already viewing re-runs. It was a game changer in many regards, the first scripted TV show to be filmed in front of a live audience using a (then) unique three-camera system. At the peak of its powers, it pulled in sixty million viewers.

Being the Ricardos is a fascinating look at the husband and wife duo on which the series was loosely based, as they approach a major flashpoint in their joint career. Midway through recording their second series, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) are hit by potential disaster. Ball has been investigated (and cleared) by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the newspapers are now accusing her of being a communist. Also, she has just discovered she is pregnant with her second child and there’s no way her sponsors are going to allow a visibly pregnant woman onto the television screens, because viewers are going to start thinking about how she got pregnant in the first place and – well, not to put too fine a point upon it, her husband is Cuban…

I know. You could be forgiven for thinking that the series actually originated in the middle ages, but no, in the 1950s, such mundane revelations could stop a series dead in its tracks. So it’s going to take some nifty dance moves to get Lucy and Desi out of this one.

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin adopts a multi-faceted approach to telling his story, introducing it via a series of interviews with the show’s original writers and producer (all played by actors) and then cutting gleefully back and forth between Ball And Arnaz’s first meeting; their early experiences in radio, film and music; the recreation of the recording of a live show and all points in between.

We learn fairly quickly that Ball is an inveterate micro-manager, who trusts nobody’s instincts as much as her own, and that Arnaz is an astute businessman with an eye for self-preservation and a yen for booze, card games and female company. We also meet the duo’s regular co-stars, William Frawley (JK Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), whose careers are inextricably entwined with those of their employers, and who are not slow to express their dissatisfaction with the way they’re expected to play second fiddle. There’s also an appealing rivalry between the show’s two main writers, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy).

The script positively crackles with witty putdowns and snarky one-liners and Kidman’s performance (which has already been rewarded with a Golden Globe) is extraordinary, nailing Ball’s look, voice and presence in seemingly effortless fashion. Mind you, the cast are uniformly good and the era convincingly evoked. As the story switches expertly back and forth, no scene is allowed to outstay its welcome.

So much more than just another biopic, Being the Ricardos sneaked quietly straight onto Amazon Prime in the UK, but, with a strong Oscar buzz behind it, expect to hear a lot more about it in the days to come.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Honest Thief

12/05/21

Amazon Prime

A Liam Neeson thriller is, by usual standards, an all too familiar commodity. We know what to expect, don’t we? Big Liam will play a nice, easygoing sort of feller who is calm and controlled until somebody causes harm to his wife/daughter/grandma/kitten (tick as appropriate), whereupon he calls upon the various talents he’s learned in his past – lock-picking/mountain climbing/paragliding (tick as appropriate) to exact a brutal and wince-inducing revenge upon those who have angered him.

Blood flows, teeth fly in many directions and the end credits roll. Job done.

To give Honest Thief all due credit, it does its level best to vary up the established formula, offering more nuance and characterisation than we’ve seen in previous efforts. Here, Big Liam plays Tom Dolan, the ‘honest thief’ of the title. Better known as the ‘in and out bandit’ (a monicker he loathes) he’s been responsible for robbing a whole string of banks over the past six years and has amassed a fortune of nine million dollars, which he keeps tucked away in a storage facility. But his life changes when he meets Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh) and it isn’t too long before he’s pledged his adoration and asked her to marry him. However, those ill-gotten gains don’t sit too comfortably with his plans for the future, so he determines to approach the FBI and offer them a deal – he’ll return all the money – that’s right, he hasn’t spent a penny of it – in return for a lighter sentence with visiting rights. In just a year or so, he and Annie can be together as man and wife. Lovely.

But, of course, the prospect of being handed a cool nine million bucks in a cardboard box is enough to tempt even an FBI agent into straying off the path of law and order – and how easy would it be to simply pin all the blame on Tom, who isn’t denying the fact that he stole the money in the first place? Therein lies the rub.

For the film’s first half, there’s barely a glimpse of the Big Liam of old. Tom’s relationship with Annie is actually rather charming and there’s also a measured performance by Jeffrey Donovan as FBI agent Sean Meyers, a man whose recent marital breakup has caused him to reassess his life. He’s also accompanied by a ridiculously cute dog. Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos are two junior FBI men, who are tempted by the prospect of easy millions and who are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their objective.

In the second half, we’re back in more generic territory, as somebody is foolish enough to harm Annie and Tom calls upon his talents (as an accomplished thief) to bring down the necessary retribution – but even here, the shootings, beatings and explosions are reined back to a respectable level and the various plot twists are ingenious enough to keep me thoroughly entertained.

This was never going to be a cinematic masterpiece, but as a slice of solid, fast-paced action, it’ll do nicely until the next one comes along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

I Care a Lot

21/02/21

Amazon Prime

The ‘carer’ in this story is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a woman who – it soon becomes clear – cares only for herself and her lover, Fran (Eliza Gonzalez). Exploiting the law by bribing doctors, Marla has become adept at identifying vulnerable elderly people and getting herself appointed as their legal guardian, whereupon she is free to exploit them for her own profit. She gleefully sells off their homes, their possessions, the little treasures they have accumulated over the years, paying herself a healthy wage from the proceeds and siphoning off whatever she thinks she can get away with.

If it all seems a bit far-fetched, think again. In America, such shenanigans are perfectly permissible and writer/director J Blakeson has no hesitation in pointing up the iniquities of the system.

Marla sets her sights on her latest victim: rich loner, Jennifer Paterson (Dianne Wiest). Before Jennifer quite knows what’s happening to her, she is drugged up and incarcerated in a care home. It’s at this point that Marla realises she may have bitten off more than she can chew. The records state that Jennifer has no kin, but it turns out she actually has a secret son, Roman (Peter Dinklage), a man who – though small in stature – is a powerful and ruthless criminal, who will stop at nothing to get his beloved momma back.

I Care a Lot has a great deal going for it, not least what could be a career-best performance from Pike, whose portrayal of Marla is extraordinary. She paints her as a venomous, heartless machine, able to mask her raging avarice behind a dazzling smile and a haircut of such precision it looks like it’s been achieved using a set square. Wiest is pretty good too, but she’s criminally under-used here, which is a shame, because she has been gifted with the film’s finest one-liner. And Dinklage also convinces as a ruthless mafioso, a man you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

The main problem for me however, is that there’s really nobody in this story to root for, since every character I’m introduced to is as venal and self-centred as the last. Even Jennifer isn’t the innocent she at first appears to be. It really says something when the people on the right side of the law are even viler than those who are openly flouting it, but it’s not enough for me. I find myself wanting a character – just one – that I can actually relate to.

The film’s middle section boils down to a series of complicated tussles between Marla and Roman, both of them intent on beating the other at all costs. Though these scenes are cleverly staged, they are somehow less interesting than the film’s central tenet. However, just when I think it’s all going off the rails, Blakeson manages to snatch everything back with a conclusion that comes swaggering in out of left field and actually leaves me gasping. I really don’t see it coming.

I Care a Lot isn’t perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very good and – for the best part of its nearly two hours’ running time – it does manage to keep me glued to the screen. It also makes me rage with anger at what can happen to elderly people locked up in the moral maze of the American health care system.

4 stars

Philip Caveney