Naomi Watts

Penguin Bloom

29/03/21

Netflix

The lockdown rolls relentlessly on, and we’re reduced to seeking out those films which, in normal times, we’d steer well clear of. Penguin Bloom is one such feature, sporting as it does a storyline that threatens to be a little too saccharine for comfort. The fact that it turns out to be a true story and – as a series of genuine photographs over the end credits proudly attests – sticks very closely to what actually happened, helps no end. So does director Glendyn Ivin’s ability to stay just the right side of mawkishness throughout. Whenever things threaten to tip over into the land of treacle, Ivin offers us a nasty flashback or a vitriolic outburst, just to make sure we appreciate the very real tragedy of the tale.

Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, making a decent fist of an Australian accent) live a carefree existence in an idyllic home somewhere in Australia, with their three sons. Cameron is a photographer by trade and Sam, when not making her own honey, is a keen surfer. But everything changes irrevocably on a family holiday to Thailand, when oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) discovers a secluded roof garden above their hotel and leads his mother up there to take in the scenery.

However, a dodgy bit of building work quickly puts paid to all the fun and games, as Sam takes a horrific fall from the roof and winds up with a damaged spine, paralysed from the waist down.

Once back home, despite everybody’s best efforts, she fails to come to terms with her situation and, all too understandably, begins to descend into depression. Then Noah discovers a fledgling magpie that has fallen from its nest and persuades his parents to let him bring her into the house. He promptly dubs the bird Penguin (Peng for short) and it isn’t long before the creature has become a vital member of the Bloom family. Sam is at first resistant to Peng’s feathery charms, but as time moves on, she warms to her – and of course, as she works towards helping Peng to learn to fly, so Sam manages to spread her own wings…

See, that does sound horribly sentimental, doesn’t it? And perhaps, if I’m honest, there is a streak of that in here, but what the heck, this actually happened and maybe I need to cut the Blooms some slack. If there is a problem with the movie, it’s one of continuity. Peng looks markedly different in just about every shot, but as the credits eventually reveal, ten individual birds played the title role, so perhaps it isn’t exactly surprising: and, let’s face it, CGI birds never really convince, no matter how much cash you throw at them. And these stunt magpies, if rumour is to be believed, actually work for birdseed. Oh and before I forget, Sam’s mother Jan, is played by Jacki Weaver, who actually does have some authority here (see what I did there?).

Ultimately, Penguin Bloom turns out to be an agreeable way to spend an hour or so and, until cinemas finally reopen their doors, we’re going to have to keep sifting through the bowels of our streaming services in a never-ending quest to find agreeable ways for movie fans to pass their time.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

While We’re Young

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13/04/15

Reviewing Noah Baumbach’s previous film, Frances Ha, I remarked that it was the best Woody Allen movie in ages and I think that still holds true for While We’re Young. The spirit of Woody in his prime haunts this sprightly comedy, though perhaps this is mid-period Woody, around the time of say, Hannah and Her Sisters. This isn’t intended as a criticism, by the way, but as a compliment of the highest order. Even Woody Allen can’t make movies like this any more.

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a once-promising documentary maker who has stalled on his second project, still incomplete after ten years of tinkering with it. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is a film producer who works alongside her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin) a documentary maker of near legendary fame, a cross which Josh has had to bear for most of his life. When Josh and Leslie encounter cool young film-maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his free-spirited girlfriend Darby (Amanda Siefried), they soon find themselves being inexorably drawn into their quirky universe, complete with a change of wardrobe and a visit to a spiritual vomiting course. Jamie professes to be Josh’s greatest fan… and he soon has him working as his collaborator on a new film project – but is Jamie everything he claims to be? Or does he have more mercenary objectives in mind?

The film is funniest when examining the ‘chalk and cheese’ aspects of the two male leads. While Josh plays CD’s, Jamie prefers vinyl. Where Josh frequents Facebook, Jamie prefers scribbling down obscure messages on bits of paper. It soon becomes clear that Jamie is actually a total jerk. Despite that, it’s also obvious that he’s likely to make a big success at his chosen vocation. There are plenty of laughs along the way, but the story falls down somewhat with a conclusion which suggests that people cannot really be complete until they become parents. Since Josh and Cornelia have spent most of the movie professing how lucky they are to have escaped that particular ‘trap,’ it seems a little facile to have them both willingly falling headlong into it.

Still, for all that, this is that rarest of things, an intelligent comedy that hits most of its intended targets with ease. It may not quite be in the same league as Frances Ha, but it’s not so bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

13