Idris Elba

Concrete Cowboy

12/04/21

Netflix

There’s nothing innovative about the plot of Concrete Cowboy. The ‘troubled teen learns to better himself by caring for an animal’ trope is very well worn, with shining beacons such as Kes and Old Yeller really making their mark. But writer/director Ricky Staub’s movie is nevertheless well worth watching, because it’s hard to tire of redemption tales, and this one shines a light on a little-known community: black cowboys in Philadelphia.

This isn’t just my ignorance; the movie spells it out. Most of us don’t know black cowboys exist; they’ve been whitewashed out of history. In fact, we don’t expect to see poor black Philadelphians on horseback at all, but there they are, eking out a living from their urban stables.

Caleb McLaughlin is Cole, and he’s in bother. Again. Expelled from yet another Detroit school, Cole is running out of options. His mum, Amahle (Liz Priestley), knows she needs to do something radical. And so, despite his protests, she packs Cole’s bags and drives him to Philadelphia, telling him he has to spend the summer with his dad, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is not at all keen on the idea, especially when he realises just how unconventional Harp’s living arrangements are. Sleeping on a sofa isn’t such a big deal, but sharing a room with a horse is beyond the pale.

It’s not easy. Harp is kind but very strict, and Cole doesn’t take well to discipline. And there is temptation in Philadelphia too, in the form of Cole’s childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who’s risking everything by double-crossing the drug dealers he works for. Cole goes along for the ride – and for the fancy new trainers – but he soon realises the danger he’s in…

But he doesn’t need to follow Smoosh, because he has a horse, Boo: a wild, unbroken animal that only he can get close to. What will he do?

McLaughlin delivers a fine performance; it’s easy to empathise with the moody teenager he portrays, to understand his conflicting emotions. The ensemble cast are great too, notably Lorraine Toussaint as stable owner, Nessie, and Ivannah-Mercedes as love interest, Esha. But my favourite thing about this film is the exposé of the cowboys’ precarious situation. They rarely own their stables; as renters, they’re vulnerable to eviction, if a landowner can make money by selling to property developers as an area gentrifies, for example. It seems so wrong that their entire way of life can be threatened like this, and so short-sighted. All Smush wants is to earn enough money to move to the countryside and live on a ranch; if people are denied opportunities, of course they turn to crime.

So, no, it’s not original, and yes, you can see every plot turn a mile away, but Concrete Cowboy is still a fascinating watch.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Zootropolis

12/01/21

Disney +

Our recent flirtation with the House of Mouse affords us the opportunity to investigate some of the Disney product we’ve previously missed. Zootropolis seems worthy of investigation. There are several people out there (you know who you are) who’ve urged us to give it a try and, for no other reason than the fact that – pre-Covid – we were somewhat spoiled for choice, we have chosen to ignore them.

We no longer have that excuse. And of course, it turns out our friends were right. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

In a world where all animals happily co-exist, young rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up with one overpowering ambition: to become a police officer. Her carrot-farming parents are really not keen on the idea. Bunnies, they insist, are meek and cute, and not cut out for such shenanigans. But Judy is determined and, sure enough, after graduating valedictorian from the police academy, she heads off to the city of Zootropolis to start her new career.

The titular city, by the way, is the film’s most glorious achievement. A fully-realised environment divided into different sectors – desert, rain forest, tundra – it’s all rendered in eye-popping animation with extraordinary attention to detail. Watching it, you can almost believe it exists.

Judy arrives at her police precinct all ready to go, but the stern Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) clearly shares her parents’ views of what a bunny is capable of and promptly assigns her to parking duties. She applies herself to the task, and soon encounters the streetwise Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who has devised his own ways of making a living by skirting very, VERY close to the edges of the law.

When a series of mysterious disappearances occur around the city, Judy spots an opportunity to step up her career a couple of notches and cunningly blackmails Nick into helping her investigate the situation. They soon realises that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed…

Zootropolis is enormously appealing – a bizarre marriage between a futuristic sci-fi adventure and an old fashioned noir mystery. Look out for a delightful spoof of The Godfather in the engaging form of Mr Big (Maurice LaMarche) and relish the scene where Judy and Nick visit an information department serviced exclusively by sloths, led by Flash (Raymond S. Persi). You’ll giggle too at an appearance by Tommy Chong as a fly-infested yak, the manager of a… health spa.

Of course, there’s another of those famous Disney ‘messages’ embedded in this tale – a subtext that warns of the dangers of making cultural and racial assumptions, and how every individual deserves the personal freedom to pursue what interests them. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s an important message, isn’t it, and maybe subtlety isn’t always appropriate.

At any rate, it’s great fun and it’s chock full of invention. If, like me, you’ve put this onto the back (bunny) boiler, now might be the perfect time to try it out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

 

Molly’s Game

04/01/18

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin has certainly earned his stripes. From The West Wing to The Social Network, he’s proved his abilities as an ace screenwriter. For his directorial debut, he’s seized upon the real life story of Molly Bloom (not that Molly Bloom) portrayed here by Jessica Chastain on excellent form and based upon Bloom’s autobiography – which probably explains how she is be presented here as a bit of a saint, rather than the ruthless enabler she so clearly was.

The film opens with an extended voiceover that explains how Bloom’s youth is spent as a competitive downhill skier, schooled by her hard-assed father, Larry (Kevin Costner) and constantly in the shadow of her more successful brother, a downhill champion. When a terrible injury puts a premature end to her sporting ambitions, Bloom looks around for alternative forms of employment and more by accident than design, ends up helping to host a series of ‘slightly’ illegal poker games where celebrity players gamble (and generally lose) obscene amounts of money. When her boorish employer, Dean (Jeremy Strong) decides to cut her out of the games, she immediately sets up in competition with him, hiring swankier venues and stealing all of his regulars. From there, she goes all out to tempt in more affluent players. When, two years after quitting the business, she is arrested by the FBI she goes in search of a lawyer and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who despite his initial reluctance to represent her, is soon won over by Bloom’s charms… (Jaffey, by the way, isn’t a real character, but an invention, intended to represent the various lawyers she was associated with before coming to trial).

It’s perhaps inevitable that Sorkin the director fails to fully rein in Sorkin the writer – with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, Molly’s Game becomes somewhat lumpen in the middle section and could surely have lost half an hour in the editing suite. Furthermore, those viewers (like me) who know or care nothing about the rules of poker may find their attention wandering during these stretches – but the film gathers momentum as it heads into its final stretch and has me hooked to its conclusion.

Sorkin’s dialogue is as delicious as ever, but if there’s an overall problem here, it’s simply that it’s hard to sympathise with any of the major characters – Elba’s fictional one aside. The once cute Michael Cera (of Juno) is really unpleasant as the mysterious Player X and even the usually affable Chris O Dowd is irritating as perennial loser Douglas Downey. And no matter how eloquently Chastain plays that lead role, its hard to feel warmth for a woman who doesn’t think twice about exploiting the needs of gambling addicts in order to earn herself considerable sums of money.

In the end, Molly’s Game is watchable if flawed. Poker fans will doubtless see this as a royal flush, whereas to me it’s more like three of a kind.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Mountain Between Us

08/10/17

This handsomely mounted movie, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a story of survival against all the odds in remote mountain locations. Nicely acted and decently filmed, it’s hampered somewhat by an all-pervading sense of predictability and by the conviction that it could have been a whole lot better if it had been willing to take a few more risks, particularly in the gender-stereotyping department. 

Photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) is desperate to get to Denver, where she’s scheduled to marry her partner, Mark (Dermot Mulroney). But impending bad weather leads to the cancellation of her flight. At the airport, she overhears surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) telling a flight attendant that he too is desperate to get to Denver in order to carry out an urgent operation on a young patient. Alex talks him into sharing the cost of chartering a small private plane, flown by aging pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), a man who clearly hasn’t spent an awful lot of time reading up on his health and safety procedures. Almost before you can say ‘bad idea,’ Walter has suffered a fatal stroke and the couple find themselves involved in a messy crash-landing on a snow-covered mountain peak. Worse still, Walter hasn’t bothered to inform anybody about the flight so nobody knows where they are – oh, and one more thing: Alex has only gone and fractured her leg…

All the usual tropes of a survival movie are present and correct – the couple overcome the problems of staying warm (mostly it would seem, by burning credit card bills) of finding food (a couple of packets of almonds) and of healing their wounds. Ben somehow finds the necessary tools to fix Alex’s broken leg and generally patch her up. If there’s a real criticism here, it’s that Ben is pretty much the ingenious hero throughout this scenario, solving nearly all of the couple’s problems single-handedly – even, at one stage, dragging Alex along behind him like an encumbrance. A hungry cougar adds a bit of much-needed menace (and eventually ends up supplementing the food supply) but eventually, the hapless couple realise that, if they are going to make it out alive, they will have to descend the mountain on foot – and, as they travel, it becomes increasingly apparent that the two of them are falling for each other, big time. Which is awkward, to say the very least.

This would be all well and good, but the film then overstays its welcome by looking at what happens after the events on the mountain, dragging out proceedings and holding off on an ending that we all know is waiting in the wings. Winslet and Elba make an agreeable couple and manage to strike plenty of sparks off each other, but she should have been given a bit more to do on that mountain.

All in all, this is watchable stuff – but not exactly ground-breaking.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Star Trek Beyond

Jaylah_and_scott

23/07/81

Star Trek has had a somewhat chequered history in the movies, a series that started well, peaked around the  third film and then become increasingly moribund with each successive instalment. In 2009, J.J. Abrams managed to deliver a great big kick up the franchise, revitalising the whole shebang – and while his sequel, Into Darkness wasn’t quite as assured, managing to upset a lot of Trek stalwarts with it’s reinventions, it was nonetheless, well told and fairly absorbing. Now Justin Lin (of the Fast and Furious movies) picks up the baton and attempts to run with it. Oh dear, oh dear…

Things start promisingly enough with a clever sight gag and soon after that, a sequence where The Enterprise arrives at a remote space station, a stunning construction that looks like it might have been designed by Escher – but when Kirk (Chris Pine) agrees to go and help some captives on a beleaguered planet, he and his intrepid crew soon realise that they have wandered into an elaborate trap, set by the villainous Krall (a virtually unrecognisable Idris Elba) and a huge space battle ensues. It goes on for what seems like weeks and the fact that it occurs in murky, half-darkness does nothing for an audience’s ability to follow what’s happening. Soon, the familiar characters are aboard escape pods and hurtling towards different locations, where they will have to regroup in order to stop Krall from employing a terrible weapon…

There are a few moments here, where Lin remembers that what has always fuelled Gene Roddenberry’s creation most effectively is the interplay between the characters. But whenever there’s a danger of things getting interesting, the script by Simon Pegg (who should have known better) and several other broth-spoilers, flings us back in the direction of yet another interminable pitched battle. And the franchise finds itself  in the doldrums once again, undoing all of Abrams hard work. A coda where a character solemnly intones the old bit about ‘boldly going to strange new worlds’ seems all the more ironic.

There’s nothing new or interesting here, just the resounding clunk of a missed opportunity.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Beasts of No Nation

MV5BMTYwMzMzMDI0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDQ3NjI3NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Unknown

15/11/15

The world is changing and so are the ways in which movies are funded. Take Beasts of No Nation, for instance – an original production from Netflix, it was afforded only a brief theatrical outing, and it’s probably the last thing you would have expected to be produced by a popular streaming company. It’s a bleak and harrowing look at events during a civil war in an unnamed African country. A young boy, Agu (an extraordinarily affecting debut by Abraham Attah) plays happily with his friends in a country ruled by government troops; but when a rebel force’s resistance starts to gather pace, Agu’s family is caught up in the ensuing chaos. His Mother is forced to flee the country, while his schoolteacher father and his older brother are executed when they are mistaken for rebels. Suddenly a virtual orphan, Agu manages to escape the massacre and flees into the jungle.

There, he is discovered by the rebels, who are led by the charismatic ‘Commandant’ (Idris Elba). He enlists Agu into his rag-tag army, where the boy undergoes a harsh indoctrination into the ways of warfare. Some of the ensuing scenes are unflinchingly brutal and we soon discover that the Commandant’s ebullient image conceals a darker, more predatory nature. BONN is in no way an easy film to watch – but it’s doubtless an important one and all credit to Netflix (and to co-producer Idris Elba), for having the guts to back such a searing and thought-provoking story. Credit also should go to director Carey Joji Fukunaga, who handles his difficult material with great skill, knowing exactly when to cut away from the carnage.

Will Agu survive his ordeal? And if he does survive, will he be traumatised for the rest of his days? You’ll need to watch the film to answer those questions, and it’s there to stream on Netflix, any time you’re ready, but be prepared -you’ll be enlisting for a bloody and uncompromising journey into the heart of darkness.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney