Mark Rylance

The Phantom of the Open

20/03/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Good golf movies are few and far between. Tin Cup, maybe. Happy Gilmore?

After being trumpeted for what seems like forever, The Phantom of the Open has finally er… opened and, after having seen the needlessly detailed trailer for what feels like a thousand viewings, it’s hard for the actual film to generate any real surprises. Which is a pity, though hardly the fault of writer Simon Farnaby or director Craig Roberts.

This is the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a sixty-five-year-old crane operator, who, despite having no experience of – or indeed aptitude for – the game of golf, decides to enter the British Open Golf Championship. He initially appears as himself but, later, when he becomes persona non grata, under a series of increasingly unlikely nom de plumes. He’s also the father of twins, who briefly became the disco dancing champions of the world. (Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up.) It’s an immensely likeable story and, as played by Mark Rylance, Flitcroft is an immensely likeable chap: shy and unassuming, but with the dogged determination to keep going, no matter what.

‘Practice makes perfect,’ he’s fond of saying. A lot.

His lofty ambitions are aided by his ever-supportive wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins), but vigorously opposed by his nemesis, Keith McKenzie (Rhys Ifans), a sneering official who sees golf as the realm of the well-to-do, not for some working-class oik with ideas above his station.

But of course, the fickle public does have a habit of flocking to support an underdog. When Flitcroft’s lamentable debut earns him the worst score in the history of the Open, he’s spotted by Daily Mirror journalist Lloyd Donovan (Ash Tandon), who takes the opportunity to give him that titular nickname and to ensure that plenty of other golf fans hear all about him.

And that’s pretty much all we get in this warm-hearted romp – from Flitcroft’s disastrous attempts to gain skills in his adopted sport to the unexpected discovery that, in America, there’s a whole society of golfers who follow him with adoration. There’s an attempt to instil more dramatic meat into the story when Flitcroft’s desperate misadventures embarrass his upwardly-mobile stepson, Michael (Jake Davies), a wheeler and dealer at the shipyard where his father is employed. Can the two of them ever reconcile their differences? But this feels like a side-issue. The Phantom of the Open is mostly a good-natured attack on the old chuckle-muscles and in that respect, it comes up to par.

As an aside though, I do wish cinema trailers would resist giving away so much of an upcoming film. This might have fared better in my affections if I hadn’t felt as though I could act as a prompt for most of the actors’ lines. Just saying.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Don’t Look Up

24/12/21

Netflix

It’s Christmas Eve, so of course we all want something cheery and cuddly to watch… right?

Adam McKay’s Don’t look Up may just qualify as the least likely candidate for a fun Christmas movie in the history of such things, and yet this whip-smart, prescient and funny satire somehow hits all the right buttons to provide an evening of entertaining viewing.

Scientist Doctor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is initially excited when one of his students, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discovers a new comet in the solar system, but he’s rather less pleased when their projections suggest that said comet – a massive heavenly projectile – is due to collide with planet earth in something less than six months’ time. This will be an extinction event.

Understandably spooked, they contact an expert, Professor Teddy Oglethorpe (Ron Morgan), with their findings and the three of them alert the White House. Initially, they are treated like a trio of cranks. President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is much more interested in her mid-term prospects, currently on the skids since she’s been found emailing pictures of her ahem… lady parts… to a her boyfriend. Orlean’s son, the Trumpian Jason (Jonah Hill), appears to have the intellect of a sandwich toaster and is more interested on what’s trending on social media than any upcoming real-life calamity.

But the reality slowly dawns. This is actually going to happen…

So who is going to save the world? Could it be the powerful mobile phone entrepreneur, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a cross between Elon Musk and Tim Cook? Or maybe the vacuous (but influential) pop star, Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), who can at least compose a saccharine song abut what’s happening? And what about the callous, self-regarding chat show host, Brie Eventree (Cate Blanchett), or her smug co-presenter, Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry)?

Then President Orlean realises that she might be able to manipulate the approaching catastrophe in order to improve her own ratings. As the comet inexorably approaches, nobody seems able to agree on a sensible course of action…

Don’t look Up is played for laughs, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot the real life targets McKay has in his sights and, wild as this all is, it’s scarily believable. Substitute the word ‘comet’ for say, ‘pandemic’ or ‘global warming,’ and you’ll see the same cast of characters strutting their stuff: the scientists, the non-believers, the conspiracy-theorists and the tech billionaires, all determined to turn any disaster to their advantage.

McKay walks a perilous tightrope to a suspenseful conclusion that is both devastating – and, at the same time, devastatingly funny. Okay, like I said, not everybody will want to stomach this Netflix Original production quite so close to Christmas. All that turkey and mincemeat might be enough to swallow right now. But as you head into the New Year, be sure to tune in. It’s simply too good to miss.

And make sure you watch till the very end…

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Trial of the Chicago 7

16/10/20

Netflix

Those people who despair about the current state of the judicial system in America should take a long, hard look at The Trial of the Chicago 7 – if only to remind themselves that it was just as rotten in the late 60s.

The titular trial is, of course, one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in relatively recent history, and here it is in all its shocking detail. Presented as fiction, this would inevitably raise eyebrows. The fact that it’s all true only intensifies the sense of shame the story generates. This is a damning narrative in the truest sense of the word.

It’s the story of a bunch of radicals who, in 1968, organised a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. On the night of the protest, a large contingent of the protesters were cornered by the police and subjected to a brutal physical assault. Many of the officers removed their identification before striking out with their batons.

The upshot should surely have been that the Chicago police were the ones on trial, but no such luck. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and four of their friends find themselves up before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), a rampant hardliner who clearly deems them guilty on the length of their hair alone. Their crime? Hard to say, really. Obstructing police batons with their faces?

Just to complicate matters, Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is on trial alongside them, for no apparent reason other than he happened to be in Chicago on the same night. He has no legal representation in the court and, when he tries to speak for himself, he’s escorted outside, beaten, shackled and brought back in wearing a gag.

Think about that for a moment…

Writer/Director Aaron Sorkin has been working on this film for several years and it’s clearly a passion project. At first glance, some of the casting seems questionable but, as it turns out, Redmayne is perfectly convincing as Hayden, and Baron Cohen – hardly the go-to person for a credible acting performance – really captures the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, delivering what just might be his best film performance so far.

There are plenty of other sterling actors in smaller roles – Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton to name but three – and the era is reproduced in almost forensic detail. It’s evident that Sorkin has designed this as a salutary lesson, a plea for the USA to ditch the kind of values exhibited here.

Some of that will be decided in the upcoming Presidential election but, in the meantime, here’s a chilling testament to the iniquities of the law and a stark warning of what happens when the judiciary isn’t held to proper account.

Hard-hitting stuff.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

Ready Player One

31/03/18

If ever there was a man to qualify as ‘World’s Greatest Living Film Director,’ Steven Spielberg would surely be a strong contender for the title. Few movie makers have his longevity – his first cinematic release, Duel, was released in 1971. Even fewer can boast his extensive range. Here is a man who is happy to film pure popcorn crowd pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, but who is equally at home helming powerful dramas of the ilk of Munich or Schindler’s List. Recently the recipient of Empire Magazine’s ‘Legend of Our Lifetime’ Award, it’s hardly surprising that few people have bothered to put up voices of dissent. He really is that accomplished. With his latest release, he takes on the world of virtual reality gaming and it would have been so easy to come a cropper here, an older man desperately trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ But, as ever, Spielberg passes his self-appointed test with flying colours.

Set in the year 2045, the story is set in a dystopian vision of America (has there ever been an optimistic cinematic view of its future, I wonder?). Most of the population is addicted to virtual gaming and, like our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend nearly all of their leisure hours in a pixellated environment called The Oasis. Wade competes there using his more handsome avatar, Parzival, and he’s not just playing to escape from the drudgery of his life, oh no. He’s in search of three special keys, hidden there by the Oasis’s late creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). The finder of those keys will inherit his world and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue.

Whilst in the Oasis, Wade regularly interacts with the avatars of gamer friends who he has never actually met in real life. Then he meets a new one, Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), who, he soon realises, is somebody he really would like to know better. Their introduction – during a riotous vehicle chase – sets the tone for the story that follows and makes The Fast and the Furious look like a Sunday drive in the suburbs. In the midst of all the excitement, Wade is blissfully unaware that he has a major adversary in the real world. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ruthless businessman, intent on securing the Oasis for himself and ready to go to any lengths to eliminate his competitors.

In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Suffice to say that Spielberg and his team have concocted a dazzling, fast-paced riot of sound and fury, with visual references to so many of Spielberg’s movie influences (plus several images from his own films) that you will be constantly trying to spot them all. Some are obvious, and actually contribute to the story, while others are onscreen for the briefest of glimpses. If ever a film demanded repeat viewings, this is the one – if only to allow the geeks in the audience to tick the various references off their list. If I may be allowed to single out one particular  sequence for praise, it’s the extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Okay, so this is definitely one to go on the ‘popcorn’ side of Spielberg’s resumé, but oh my goodness, what succulent popcorn it is! After the relatively lacklustre BFG, and the rather straight laced The Post, this puts him back where he belongs, as the foremost purveyor of cinematic wonder. Where will he go next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but I would venture to suggest that, close to fifty years since his low budget debut, Spielberg’s well seems a long way from running dry.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The BFG

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22/07/16

It sounded like a marriage made in heaven – Steven Spielberg takes on one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved tales, with a screenplay by ET author Melissa Mathison (who recently died of cancer and to whom this film is respectfully dedicated). And there’s surely much to admire in this handsomely mounted, big screen production. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, who plays the role of Sophie, is leagues away from the usual cheesy Hollywood starlet and, as the titular big friendly giant, Mark Rylance is perfectly charming, his features projecting a whole range of emotions to camera. And yet… there’s something curiously inert about this film. Every image might look like something you could put in a gilt frame but the story itself is… dare I say it? A bit dull. There’s none of the peril that you’ll usually find in a Dahl story; indeed, the plot here is thin and, at times, downright illogical. And then, of course, there’s Spielberg’s inevitable proclivity for the sentimental, something that Dahl (bless him) could never have been accused of.

In 1980s London, young Sophie dwells in a peculiar sort of orphanage. In the small hours of the morning, she looks out of the window and spots a giant wandering the alleyways of the city and, because she has seen him, he grabs her and takes her away to ‘Giant Country,’ where she quickly discovers that this big friendly giant is, in fact, a bit of a runt, constantly bullied by other, bigger giants. She accompanies him to his work, where he catches dreams and stores them in bottles – it’s never really clear why.

The audience this afternoon is largely made up of youngsters but it’s quickly apparent by all the restless trips to the toilet that the film isn’t really grabbing them. An extended farting sequence at Buckingham Palace has them laughing but it’s over much too quickly,  and they’re soon back to fidgeting and chatting. I’m afraid I am in total agreement with them. Spielberg is the closest you could reasonably expect to provide  a capable set of hands at the tiller of any celluloid voyage but this particular journey soon finds itself becalmed and that’s a genuine shame.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Bridge of Spies

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29/11/15

Stephen Spielberg wears two hats. There’s the backwards baseball cap he wears when he’s directing superior popcorn entertainments like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park – and sometimes, he reaches into the back of the wardrobe and pulls out a sombre black homburg, which is his hatwear of choice when helming ‘darker’ material like Schindler’s List and Munich. Bridge of Spies is definitely a homburg movie, but in its quiet own way, its as gripping and involving as any of his other films. Spielberg has the uncanny ability to take the most complex story and tell it with effortless style, making it accessible and involving.

It’s 1957 and the ‘Cold War’ between America and Russia is at its height. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) an apparently innocuous amateur artist is arrested on a charge of spying for the USSR. He is, arguably, the most hated man in America. Veteran lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend him, mainly because the law must be observed and despite the fact that even the judge on the case openly declares that Abel should be found guilty. But Donovan is a liberal, who believes implicitly in the American constitution. He fights Abel’s case (unsuccessfully) through the courts and finds himself vilified for doing so – but he does manage to prevent him from going to the electric chair, pointing out that Abel might be a useful bargaining tool in the future.

Sure enough, shortly afterwards, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers is shot down whilst carrying out a spy mission over Russian territory. He’s taken prisoner and the CIA are terrified that he might be persuaded to leak the secrets of the U2 spy plane. A possible exchange of prisoners is mooted and once again, Donovan is recruited to head out to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange…

This is a beautifully made film, that brilliantly invokes the austere look of the era and provides a fresh perspective on the business of espionage. Hanks is perfectly cast as the American everyman, a role that would have been played by James Stewart back in the day, his chunky features emanating absolute integrity. Rylance, meanwhile, as the dry, sardonic Abel gives a masterclass in acting. Together, the two actors strike sparks off each other and they are aided and abetted by a razor sharp script, created by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.

There’s little to dislike here and plenty to admire. It’s essentially a ‘small’ movie, which tells its story with skill and precision and never puts a foot wrong. As the story moves towards its conclusion, it bills up levels of suspense that will have you twitching in your seat.

Spielberg wears both his hats with equal success but I have to say, I do prefer him in the homburg.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney