Hayley Bennett

Till

07/01/23

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The story of Emmett Till and his mother, Maimie Till-Mobley, is a real-life tragedy that echoes down the years, a case that was only fully resolved in 2022 – even though the initial events unfolded more than sixty years ago.

It’s August 1955, and Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) lives and works in Chicago. Her husband died during World War 2, but she has found herself a decent job (the only Black woman in her office) and is well able to give her live-wire fourteen year old son, Emmett (Jalyn Hall), a comfortable life. Mamie is understandably worried when Emmett announces his wish to go and visit his cousins and work with them on a cotton plantation in Mississippi for the summer. She knows that it will be a stark cultural change from the relatively enlightened city in which the boy has grown up – and she knows too that he’s always ready to lark around and crack jokes. Mamie’s mother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), advises her to warn her son to keep his head down. “If he does that, he’ll be fine,” she says. “He’ll be back in no time.” So Mamie reluctantly agrees to the visit.

But her worst fears are soon shockingly realised. In Mississippi, Emmett visits a convenience store and makes friendly overtures to Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), the white woman behind the counter. The next time Mamie sees her son is at the railway station in Chicago, where she views his brutalised, barely recognisable body in a wooden box. He’s been beaten, shot and lynched.

Chinonye Chuku’s film is fuelled by righteous anger, the knowledge that such brutality can – and still does – exist in one of the world’s more powerful countries. There are plenty of other characters in the story, all faithfully rendered, but it is Deadwyler’s extraordinarily powerful performance that gives it wings. Little wonder she’s considered a front-runner for the next Oscars.

If I’m honest, the screenplay (by Chuku, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp) has a tendency to occasionally drift into too much exposition, and the slowly unfolding process of the trial can sometimes seem ponderous. But that’s a minor niggle. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to viewing much of this through a fuzzy veil of helpless tears.

The most shocking details of all are reserved for the end credits, one of which actually makes me gasp in disbelief.

If you’re looking for a cheery outing to the movies, Till really isn’t the film for you, but it’s an important piece of relatively recent history and a fitting tribute to the memory of both Emmett Till and his incredibly brave and resourceful mother. My advice? Steel yourselves and take a long, hard look.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Cyrano

25/02/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a rather unlikely one; nonetheless, over the years it has fired the imaginations of film and theatre directors alike, sometimes with spectacular results. In 1990, it brought director Jean-Paul Rappeneau and his lead actor, Gerard Depardieu, much acclaim in a movie adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s source play. And, a few years earlier than that, Steve Martin had already turned it into the much-admired contemporary comedy, Roxanne.

In both films, of course, Cyrano was a character with a comically oversized nose – something that his adversaries mentioned at their peril.

In Cyrano, director Joe Wright adopts a different approach. The hero of his story, though a brave and valiant soldier, is small of stature; and, as portrayed by Peter Dinklage, this simple premise turns out to be a masterstroke, the character’s inner turmoil told mainly through the cleverly nuanced expressions on his face. Everything else about the story stays pretty much the same – though I should probably add that this is a musical version, with songs by Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

Cyrano is desperately in love with Roxanne (Hayley Bennett), a poor and (it must be said) somewhat shallow young woman, who is considered a great beauty in her home town. She is pursued by many men, among them the rich but odious De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). When Roxanne summons Cyrano to meet her in private, he dares to hope that she might have reciprocal feelings for him; instead she confesses that she has fallen in love with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a handsome new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment. Could Cyrano keep an eye on Christian and protect him from any harm?

Cyrano is so enamoured of Roxanne that he reluctantly agrees to help – and, when it turns out that Christian isn’t very good with words, Cyrano becomes the man who writes the many love letters that ‘Christian’ regularly sends to Roxanne. As Cyrano unfurls the deluge of longing he has nurtured for so long, the task nearly unhinges him.

Filmed on location in Southern Italy, Cyrano makes few concessions to realism. Instead, Wright’s film plays out through a series of highly stylised backgrounds with garish costumes, masks and makeup used to create a vibrant world that seems to virtually pulse with colour. Soldiers practising with swords move gracefully into dance routines, while large stretches of the dialogue are spoken in rhyme. It’s only when the film reaches its later stretches (and the location switches to the snow-covered heights of Mount Etna) that the brutal reality of war seems to bleach all colour from the screen and the story descends headlong into tragedy.

The songs are distinctive, plaintive and affecting, particularly in the scene where three soldiers, about to go out to their deaths in battle, leave letters to their loved ones, singing the words as they hand the pages to a messenger. It would already have been the film’s most moving sequence, but thoughts of the current conflict in Ukraine seem to lend it extra poignancy, and my eyes fill as it unfolds. If you’re already familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, you’ll know that there’s also a coda to this tale that isn’t exactly the happy ending you might have wished for.

This is undoubtedly Dinklage’s film, revealing impressive new depths to his acting, but Bennett is good too and her final scenes with Dinklage will probably send you out into the night with tears running down your face. If I’m making it sound like something of an ordeal, it really isn’t. Wright is adept at making every scene look ravishing, as he did in his under-appreciated adaptation of Anna Karenina. It’s the very theatricality of the telling that makes this film so powerful – and, in its own way, unique

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney