Apple TV

The Banker

12/02/21

Apple TV

On the face of it, a ‘based on a true story’ film about two guys who decide to set themselves up as landlords sounds like it might make for fairly dull viewing.

But, when I tell you that the true story is set in America in the 1950s and 60s – and that the two guys in question are African Americans – you might begin to appreciate that there’s more to it than initially meets the eye.

In this Apple original, finally available after some protracted – and rather unpleasant – legal wrangles, Anthony Mackie stars as Bernard Garrett, a maths prodigy who, since childhood, has hankered after a career in real estate. He’s well aware, however, that the only way a man of his colour is likely to set foot in the swanky properties he longs to own, is if he’s wearing a janitor’s overalls. Undeterred, he sets to with a will and gradually begins to amass a portfolio. When he spots an opportunity to acquire the buildings where one of Los Angeles’ biggest banks is situated, he approaches wealthy club owner Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson) to help raise the necessary finance.

Joe himself owns quite a few properties around the city but has learned from experience that, even in liberal LA, nobody is going to allow two black guys to get away with something as audacious as openly owning such fancy real estate. So they hit on a plan: hiring Bernard’s employee and friend, the handsome, hapless and – crucially – white Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to be the visible ‘face’ of the enterprise. After some intensive coaching – which includes memorising complicated figures and (really important this) learning to play golf – the ruse works like a dream and soon Bernard and Joe (and Matt) are doing very nicely, thank you.

But then Bernard pays a visit to his father in his Texas hometown, and notices a nice little neighbourhood bank, all ready for the taking. Why not just buy the place? Then he can offer loans to the many black families in the area that can’t currently enjoy such a luxury. Joe is against the notion from the start, but Bernard manages to persuade him. Once again, they’ll put Matt in there as a figurehead. It worked before, right? But all three men are to discover that what works in Los Angeles just doesn’t fly in Texas…

The shameful truths behind this story are impossible to ignore. Certainly, for that first transaction, Bernard and Joe’s only crime is that their skin is the wrong colour. Think about that for a moment. Even in the supposedly progressive 1960s, two black men could not be seen to own expensive property. That is, although they could legally own it, in truth they couldn’t do so openly, because if it ever came to light, hundreds of horrified customers would close their accounts and run screaming in the direction of another bank. Kind of puts the great American Dream into sobering perspective, doesn’t it?

If I’ve made the film sound po-faced, it’s not. The screenplay, co-written by director George Nolfi, successfully mines what vestiges of humour there are in the situation, particularly in the early stretches when it all seems like a bit of a lark. Jackson’s caustic one-liners are particularly good. Of course, the treatment that Bernard and Joe subsequently receive at the hands of the American judicial system is anything but funny, though hearing that the case eventually helped to change the law does provide some consolation.

So if you’re ever going to watch a movie about two would-be landlords, this is definitely the one to go for.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Memories of Murder

11/02/21

Apple TV

2020 will be remembered for many things and, alas, very few of them good ones – but it was the year that Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary film Parasite conquered the Oscars, carving its way through the opposition with apparent ease. For the director, it was the culmination of a varied career in cinema. Of course, he had already acquired many fans along the way, myself included. His 2016 monster movie, The Host is one of the best examples of an often underwhelming genre, while his 2013 film, Snowpiercer, though virtually annihilated by studio intervention, and never given a theatrical release, was subsequently adapted into a very successful Netflix series.

So the chance to revisit the director’s second feature, 2003’s Memories of Murder, is an opportunity not to be missed, especially when it comes with a dazzling 4K restoration.

Inspired by South Korea’s first recorded serial killer case and set in the 1980s, the film depicts how a police force in a remote province struggles to come to terms with a series of baffling murders. Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) is a rough-and-ready cop, convinced that he can identify a guilty suspect simply by looking at them, and ever ready to beat out a confession, aided by his even more quick-fisted assistant, Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim). But when Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul, he applies a more sophisticated approach to the investigation, quickly establishing that the department’s current chief suspect could never have committed the crime.

The two detectives find themselves at loggerheads and, as each new lead takes them down a series of bewildering rabbit holes, it’s anybody’s guess which of their approaches will prove most successful…

Memories of Murder manages to take a well-worn cinematic path and reinvent it as it goes. It’s hard to think of a Western serial killer film that so audaciously interweaves slapstick comedy throughout a very serious storyline, but it’s pulled off here with apparent ease. An early sequence, where the poorly-equipped cops flail oafishly around a crime scene, is perfectly judged – and it’s just the start, as Park Doo-man blunders headlong through a series of disasters, always managing to jump to the wrong conclusion, always missing the evidence that dangles right in front of his – supposedly magical – gaze. We really ought to hate him, but Kang-ho Sang somehow makes him immensely likeable – the same trick he managed so effectively in Parasite.

Meanwhile, his supposedly more sophisticated rival, Seo Tae-yoon, is driven by his own internal demons and, when he finally fixes on a possible suspect, finds himself in serious danger of resorting to the kind of approach he so despises. It’s at the film’s conclusion where the story really delivers its most powerful gut-punch, with a final shot that lingers in the memory.

This is far above the usual crime procedural. And, lest I give the impression that it’s a film that was unfairly ignored on first release, don’t be fooled. Memories of Murder won 31 awards at film festivals around Asia.

It’s simply that it took Oscar quite some time to catch on to a good thing.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Elf

11/12/2020

Apple TV

It’s Christmas… or, as Noddy Holder would put it, ‘It’s Christmaaaaaaas!’

It is a fact universally acknowledged that lots of people have favourite Yuletide movies, ones they return to again and again in search of that warm, fuzzy feeling… and it’s also true to say, that there are many such films that I just haven’t got around to watching yet. But I’m gradually ticking the boxes.

Last year, for instance, I finally caught up with The Muppet Christmas Carol and was very glad that I did, because it turned out to be an utter delight from start to finish. True, I got to see it in an actual cinema, but we’ll let that one go, before I start sobbing uncontrollably.

For years now, friends – people whose judgement I generally trust – have repeatedly urged me to watch Elf, assuring me that it belongs in the same category as TMCC and, for the same number of years, I’ve been stolidly ignoring their advice. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me. But in 2020, locked down and listless as I am, I no longer have a credible excuse not to catch up with it.

And, yes, my friends were right. It’s easy to see why this film remains a perennial favourite. It’s the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who, as an orphaned baby, inadvertently winds up aboard Santa’s sleigh and finds himself whisked off to the North Pole. He grows up alongside Santa’s elves, under the tender care of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), who acts as narrator for the tale. Of course, being human, Buddy soon towers above his workmates and begins to realise that he’s not like the others. (Buddy clearly isn’t the brightest – I can’t help wondering, what took him so long?)

When he finally overhears the truth about his origins, he’s understandably dismayed. Where has he come from? Where are his roots? Santa decides to send him back to New York city in search of his real father, hard-bitten book publisher, Walter (James Caan).

It’s probably pointless to list the plot in any more detail, since the film came out in 2003 and I’m way behind the wave on this one. It’s interesting to note, however, that the film is directed by Jon Favreau, long before he became the influential actor/director he is today, and that most of the effects utilised here are of the low budget, ‘forced perspective’ kind: simple, but effective. What makes Elf a winner, though, is the brilliant idea that lies at its core. Buddy is an innocent, a naive man-child who’s never been given the opportunity to grow up. His reactions to everything that happens to him in the big city are therefore priceless, genuinely disarming and often laugh-out-loud funny. Ferrell has, of course, enjoyed a varied career in the years since this film, but I doubt he’s ever been more appealing than he is here. Just the sight of him ambling around in that costume is enough to make a viewer smile.

What else do we have? Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, who works as a department store elf and whom Buddy falls for at first sight. Peter Dinklage plays hotshot kids’ author, Miles Finch… and, of course, Favreau can’t resist giving himself a cameo as Walter’s doctor. You want fuzzy feelgood? It’s here in abundance.

So, I admit it. I should have watched this sooner. Anybody who has recommendations for other Christmas movies I might not have seen, please feel free to let me know about them.

There are other boxes yet to be ticked.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Greyhound

12/11/20

Apple TV

Not only does Tom Hanks star in this Apple Original as the harassed captain of a second World War American destroyer, he also wrote the screenplay, basing it on C. S. Forester’s classic novel, The Good Shepherd.

Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, charged with the monumental task of leading a huge supply convoy across the Atlantic, carrying much-needed provisions for the allied war effort. Krause knows that every man on the ship is looking to him for leadership and he’s also painfully aware that, beneath those restless waves, German U boats are waiting in ambush with the aim of sinking as many ships as possible. The pressure is palpable.

It’s evident from the start that formidable amounts of money have been lavished on this production. The depictions of life aboard ship are queasily authentic and there’s no denying the steadily mounting suspense that’s generated whenever a torpedo is launched in the general direction of Krause’s ship, The Greyhound. The shock and awe of naval warfare is brilliantly replicated, too, but that dogged dedication to authenticity makes everything a bit too technical for comfort, with Krause’s every directive being repeated ad infinitum by various members of his crew.

If there’s a major failing here, it stems from the fact that we learn precious little about any of the characters in the story. All we really know about Krause is that he prays every morning and that he never has time to eat. The excellent Stephen Graham, second-billed here as the ship’s navigator, has little opportunity to strut his stuff, while the equally excellent Elizabeth Shue, briefly glimpsed in a couple of flashbacks, has even less.

It’s clear that in his screenplay, Hanks wants to concentrate on the notion that the exploits of real heroes are largely unsung: that courage often comes from the most quiet and unassuming people – but the problem is, this leaves me wanting more than this film is ultimately able to deliver. It’s hard to care about people you don’t know and no amount of weaponry can ever hope to make up for that deficit.

There are admittedly some lovely details – a scene where Krause quietly removes his blood-stained shoes and puts on a pair of carpet slippers is strangely moving – and I like the moment when he unwittingly calls a member of his crew by the name of the man’s predecessor, recently killed in action – but such moments are not quite enough to make this cinematic vessel suitably seaworthy.

Don’t get me wrong. This film doesn’t exactly sink without trace, but the beating heart of the story is, sadly, missing in action.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney