Netflix

Bo Burnham: Inside

13/06/21

Netflix

Bo Burnham is what you might call a polymath – a man of wide-ranging talents. He acts; he writes; he sings; he plays maddeningly catchy music. He’s extraordinary! He’s also been around for quite a while (he first started performing comedy as a teenager), but I, sadly, have only recently become aware of him. He’s the writer/director behind the bittersweet coming-of-age movie, Eighth Grade, which Bouquets and Brickbats awarded a well-deserved 4.8 stars in 2019. More recently, he submitted a perfectly-judged performance as Ryan in Promising Young Woman. And he has three comedy specials on Netflix, the latest of which is Inside.

Like everyone else in recent history, Burnham found himself trapped at home by the pandemic. Shortly before being locked down, he’d been afflicted by crippling bouts of stage fright. Also, he was about to turn thirty, and he needed to talk to somebody about that situation.

So he wrote, directed and performed a one-hour-twenty-seven-minute piece that all takes place in one room of his house. Of course he did. He’s a polymath.

It can sometimes be hard to write about comedy, but this show is particularly hard to pin down, because it careens frantically from one routine to the next, all of them stitched together by a stream of perceptive, oddly Beatle-ish songs, each one of which seizes on a particular subject and brilliantly eviscerates it. Whether he’s commenting on the all-pervasive overload of the internet, spoofing a children’s show where a sock puppet is revealed to be a submissive slave to his human counterpart, offering a commentary on the kind of fluff that masquerades as emotion on Instagram, or exposing the raging narcissism that lurks at the root of every comedian’s output, this is never less than fascinating. It’s wry, self-deprecating – and sometimes shocking. Occasionally it dares to stand on the very edge of a precipitous ledge, staring down into the abyss.

Comedy is subjective, of course, but – having watched this – I was prompted to catch up on his two previous Netflix specials and to note how his work – though always first rate – has matured over the eight years, from what. (2013), through Make Happy (2016) to Inside (2021). This latest piece represents him at the very peak of his powers. Where he will go next is debatable – there is some talk of him pursuing a movie career but, if that is the case, I hope he doesn’t give up on what he’s doing here.

Which is being brilliantly, irreverently funny. And if there’s something we all need right now, it’s more laughter.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Stowaway

04/05/21

Netflix

There’s a familiar shaggy dog story which concerns four passengers on a stricken airplane, who discover that they have only been issued with three parachutes and must therefore decide which of them is going to have to make do without one. Will a passenger do the decent thing and volunteer? Or will they simply opt to push one of the others out of the door? I wonder if writer/director Joe Penna took his inspiration from that same tale? At any rate, what we have here is a futuristic version of the same conundrum. In space.

Three astronauts embark on what will be a two year mission to Mars. They comprise Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, for once given free rein to employ her native accent), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and wide-eyed medical researcher, Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick). The actual details of their mission are somewhat nebulous, but that’s not the main concern of this story, which is far more interested in moral dilemmas.

The plot kicks in when the three crew members discover an injured man lying inside one of the er… hatches. He is engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) who – in equally nebulous circumstances – has ended up wounded and unconscious onboard. He is quickly patched up by Zoe and, despite being somewhat bewildered to discover he’s not going home for two years, seems a nice enough fellow, determined to fit in with three strangers. But his presence on the spaceship has caused complications, not least of which is the fact that his prone body has somehow damaged a vital bit of equipment and… there will now only be enough oxygen to allow three people to reach Mars safely.

In short, one of them needs to die, fairly promptly. Unless of course, they can come up with a better er… parachute.

Stowaway is an unashamedly low budget affair and, while it manages to make the interior of the ship thoroughly believable, whenever the characters are required to step outside of it, the result looks like a less convincing version of Gravity. This is particularly evident in an extended sequence where David and Zoe undertake a perilous space walk along a constantly rotating structure in order to reach some oxygen tanks. While it manages to exert a degree of genuine suspense in the telling, this idea has been done before and, it must be said, more convincingly than here, most recently in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky.

It’s nicely acted by Kendrick and Anderson, who make an appealing double act. Dae Kim and Collette have rather less to do and are mostly required to sit around looking glum. Understandable, under the circumstances.

More importantly, perhaps, that central moral dilemma is never satisfyingly explored and the story’s resolution does feel like a bit of a cop out. Still, this isn’t a total dud. It keeps me reasonably entertained throughout and it’s perhaps only afterwards that I start to seriously question some aspects of the plot. I can only say that Hyperion – the company that organised this mission to Mars – needs to take another look at its safety procedures.

And they should definitely start by providing more parachutes.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Run

18/04/21

Netflix

The title of this film is surely meant as an irony. What does a potential victim do when they are unable to run away from imminent danger? How can they hope to survive? Well, they must use their ingenuity of course – and this central premise is what fuels a tightly directed thriller from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, who some will remember from his 2018 offering, Searching. Yes, it’s slightly schlocky, and you might not want to think too closely about some of the background details, but it spins a gripping and suspenseful yarn that never lets up until it hits its final frame.

Chloe (Kiera Allen) is a teenager beset with a whole host of health issues. Just to make sure we appreciate how many there are, they are spelled out over the opening credits. She has asthma and eczema , she has to make herself vomit every morning and, most punishing of all, her legs are completely paralysed. Luckily, she has a mom in a million. She is Diane (Sarah Paulson), a woman who has devoted her life to caring for her daughter’s needs, teaching her at home, medicating her, cooking, cleaning, the whole shebang.

But a change is coming. Chloe has applied to go to University and she’s confidently awaiting offers of admission. Diane is taking it all in her stride. When asked by other carers how she’ll cope when her baby finally flies the nest, she assures them she’ll be just okay. Why, she’s actually looking forward to a little relaxation.

But… is she really as laid back as she appears?

It would be a crime to reveal any more of the plot. Suffice to say that there are some genuine surprises waiting in the wings to step out from cover and smack you in the kisser. Paulson is always good and she excels here as a cunning and deceitful character, able to mask everything behind a matronly smile. Allen too is utterly convincing as her daughter, who, over the space of a few days, has to come to terms with the fact that everything she’s believed since childhood needs to be drastically reassessed – and who is ingenious enough to find solutions to pretty much every problem that’s thrown at her.

There’s probably little point in mentioning any other actors because this is essentially a two hander – though I think an honourable nod should go to Pat Healy as ‘Mailman Tom,’ who certainly manages to make his brief appearance a memorable one.

So yes, this is well worth one hour and forty-eight minutes of your time.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Trial by Fire

08/03/21

Netflix

Trial by Fire belongs in what’s fast becoming a familiar category in cinema – a based-on-a-true-story account of a person’s lamentable dealings with the American judicial system. Inspired by David Grann’s article in the New Yorker in 2009, Edward Zwick’s movie adaptation had its premiere in May 2018 and thereafter got somewhat lost in the shuffle. Now it’s getting a second chance on Netflix, and it’ thoroughly deserves to be seen, even if the story is unremittingly bleak and feels uncomfortably similar to recent releases like Just Mercy and Clemency. The overriding message, however, is crystal clear: capital punishment is a bad idea, especially in a system where the poor and under-privileged have the odds so heavily stacked against them.

Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’ Connell) is a mouthy young man with a predilection for heavy metal and infidelity. He’s maintaining a stormy relationship with his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), and struggling to care for his three young kids. He’s not particularly likeable, is constantly quarrelling with Stacy (generally over his affairs with other women), and has a history of violence. But everyone who knows him agrees on one thing: he loves his kids. When a devastating house fire takes their lives and he manages to survive the conflagration, the investigating officers have no doubt in their minds that he set the fire deliberately – and, in the absence of any proof, they’re perfectly happy to fabricate some.

So Cameron winds up on Death Row, sitting in a cell and waiting for his turn for the lethal injection…

Years drift by. Cameron mellows a little, he learns how to maintain friendships with fellow prisoners and acquires an education. A chance meeting between playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) and a prison reformer affords him the first real visitor he’s had in years. Elizabeth is surprised to find him a compelling and likeable character, so she decides to visit him on a regular basis. As the two of them grow closer, she is encouraged to start looking into the flimsy case that sent him to prison in the first place. It doesn’t take her long to discover some shocking irregularities in the prosecution’s account of what went on.

But she is to discover that finding proof of a man’s innocence – and getting the powers-that-be to reopen his case – are two very different things.

In fiction, of course, this story would be depicted as a desperate race against time, with a phone call offering a pardon coming through at the last possible moment, but Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s screenplay sticks doggedly to the facts of the case. Consequently, the final stretches of this film are an angry howl of protest, a cogent plea for sanity to prevail. Sadly, it’s unlikely to change anything, but you’ll be hard-put to sit through this without feeling a mounting sense of resentment simmering within you. Both O’ Connell and Dern offer compelling performances, and Chris Coy does excellent work in the role of a prison guard, who starts off as an arrogant bully but is gradually redeemed.

But, like I said – this is grim stuff, not for the faint-hearted. On this evidence, can the USA really continue to claim that it has anything resembling a functioning system of justice?

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Capone

03/03/21

Netflix

Al Capone is perhaps the best known gangster in American history. He’s been the subject of many films and portrayed by a whole host of celebrated actors; perhaps most famously by Paul Muni in Scarface and by Robert De Niro in The Untouchables. But he’s never been depicted as he is in Josh Trank’s downbeat film.

Capone is set in the dog days, towards the end of the gangster’s life. ‘Fonse’ has recently been released from prison and is suffering horribly from the neuro syphilis that has plagued him since his teens. Locked up in a palatial mansion somewhere in Florida, with devoted wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) at his side, and with regular visits from Doctor Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), he regularly falls prey to vivid hallucinations that take him back to revisit experiences from his bloody hey day – from visits to booze-fuelled jazz clubs to crawling across heaps of bloodied bodies after a massacre he’s orchestrated.

Fonse no longer knows what is real and what is illusion and, unfortunately, this also extends to viewers of the film. While it might sound like a promising conceit on paper, it’s actually infuriating, particularly when the screenplay (also by Trank) refuses to stick to any kind of internal logic. I’m fine when I’m seeing odd happenings from Capone’s point of view, but what about when they are apparently witnessed by some of the other characters in the story? Is Capone’s old pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) actually still alive or just a vivid memory from the past? And who is the mysterious kid who keeps phoning Fonse from Cleveland? While I don’t insist that every loose end needs to be tied up, too much here is simply left hanging.

Hardy is generally a gifted performer but he’s saddled here with a thankless central role that offers him little chance to shine. Swaddled in some pretty unconvincing makeup, with a cigar (or a carrot) clenched relentlessly between his teeth, his dialogue is rarely more than a series of grunts and incoherent curses. He’s actually more eloquent when he’s noisily filling one of the oversized nappies he’s forced to wear, after suffering a few malodorous accidents in bed. Also… his constantly stoned expression makes him look a dead ringer for a grumpier version of Bernard Bresslaw from the ‘Carry On’ films.

The film’s one hour and forty-seven minutes’ duration consequently unfolds at a funereal pace, with very little in the way of progression. I feel rather like I am stuck in a traffic jam, trying to figure out what little I can see through the windscreen, and constantly wondering when I might be moving onwards again. I stick with it to the bitter end, but really have to force myself.

There’s probably a fascinating film to be made about the end of Capone’s life but, sadly, this isn’t it. Josh Trank probably had a coherent vision for his film; somehow it’s been lost in the mix.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

News of the World

11/02/21

Netflix

Director Paul Greengrass is generally considered an ‘action’ director.

With three Jason Bourne films to his credit, Captain Philips and the Anders Breivick movie, 22 July, he’s established a reputation for the use of hand-held cameras, rapid cutting and heart-stopping stunts, all designed to keep his public biting their collective fingernails. News of the World seems an unlikely vehicle for his talents. For one thing, it’s a western. For another, the story unfolds in a slow – one might even say ‘stately’ manner – and, while it’s strong on period detail, handsomely filmed and and nicely acted, there are no real surprises in this narrative.

In the years following the civil war, former Confederate officer Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) plies a humble trade, riding from town-to-town with a selection of newspapers, from which he reads extracts to grateful audiences. His aim is to inform them about the massive changes taking place in this ‘Brave New West.’ As he travels across the land in his ramshackle wagon, we witness some of those changes – and few of them are for the better: buffalo are being slaughtered for profit, Native Americans are herded off the land they’ve owned for centuries, and there are some small town entrepreneurs determined to make Kidd tell the local news in ways that make them look like heroes, no matter how heinous their actions.

But Kidd is steadfast. Facts are facts and he has little tolerance for fantasy, even when sticking to the truth spells danger.

Matters take an unexpected turn, when Kidd chances on Johanna (Helena Zengal), a thirteen-year-old German girl who has been the captive of a tribe of Kiowa for many years – the same Kiowa who murdered her parents when she was little. She has recently been ‘liberated’ and was en route to her surviving relatives in Castroville, Texas, when persons unknown decided to lynch the black trooper who was escorting her. After fruitless attempts to get somebody else to take on the responsibility, Kidd realises his only option is to accompany her himself, a trip of some 400 miles. At first it’s an uneasy alliance – Johanna only speaks Kiowa, so she and Kidd have to rely on signs and gestures to communicate. But as they travel onwards, so the ice thaws, and their friendship begins to develop…

To give the film its due, there is some welcome action in the middle section, when Kidd and Johanna are pursued by three sleazy drifters, determined to ‘acquire’ the girl so they can put her to work as a prostitute. It’s only in the ensuing chase sequence that we see some flashes of Greengrass’s action credentials – but, all too soon, we’re back to that leisurely pace as the odd couple close in on their destination, the point where they must finally part company.

Don’t get me wrong, this is entertaining stuff and Greengrass manages to make the theme of the importance of an impartial press feel relevant to contemporary America. Hanks offers another of his seemingly endless collection of taciturn heroes, and Zengal, who made such an impression in System Crasher, gets the most out of a role where she barely has an opportunity to speak.

But I’d have been happier if some of the events depicted here didn’t have quite such predictable outcomes.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Dig

30/01/21

Netflix

The Dig sounds fairly unpromising on paper. It’s based around the excavation of the Sutton Hoo horde – one of the most significant discoveries in British archeological history – and, since we know the eventual outcome of the tale before a single sod of earth has been lifted, it’s all too easy to surmise that this will be a story bereft of any suspense. However, as written by Moira Buffini (based on a novel by John Preston), and directed by Simon Stone, this is nonetheless a compelling story that never fails to hold the attention and, in one particular sequence, will have you holding your breath and crossing your fingers.

It’s 1939 and Great Britain is hurtling irrevocably towards World War 2. Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has long wanted to explore three ancient burial mounds in one of her fields and, to this end, she decides to hire local man, Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). Brown has years of practical experience in excavation, but not much in the way of qualifications. However, once the little matter of payment has been finalised, he sets to with gusto.

When the excavation begins to yield some promising results, the glowering, overbearing Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) is dispatched by the British Museum to stake their claim on the gradually emerging treasures. Soon, more hands are called to help out with the donkey work. These include Peggy Piggot (Lily James), recently betrothed to Stuart (Ben Chaplin), who, it turns out, isn’t ideal husband material – and Edith’s cousin, Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), fills in some time while waiting to take up his commission with the RAF. The various characters make up a volatile mixture, and there is an added shot of tragedy when Edith discovers that time is running out in more ways than one…

This is a handsomely-mounted production – the English countryside, thanks to cinematographer Mike Eley, has rarely looked more sumptuous – and Mulligan and Fiennes make a memorable on-screen partnership, she playing her vulnerability for all its worth, and he portraying the kind of stoic, no-nonsense personality that seems to go hand-in-hand with the era. There’s no actual romance between them – Brown is married to the equally steadfast May (Monica Dolan) – yet Pretty and Brown eventually establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Brown does forge a friendship with Edith’s young son, Robert (Archie Baines), built around a mutual interest in star gazing, and the scenes where he counsels the troubled boy are beautifully handled.

Those looking for something to transcend the current glum realities of life, could do a lot worse than clicking the Netflix button, but be warned, there’s a poignant conclusion here that may have some of you reaching for the tissues.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Death to 2020

27/12/20

Netflix

I had thought that the hideous happenings of 2020 could never make me laugh.

I was wrong.

Charlie Brooker’s cunningly constructed mockumentary takes a long hard look at the events of this momentous year, and gleefully eviscerates them in his familiar no-holds-barred fashion. (You could argue that he’s been a little too hasty in releasing it with a few days still to go, but hey, it can’t get any worse. Can it?)

Death to 2020 takes me from wincing and cringing to laughing-out-loud time and time again. It’s the comedy equivalent of riding a roller coaster. For once, this is far less of a one-man project than we’ve come to expect from Brooker. There are no fewer than twenty writers attached to this project, and it would seem their best efforts have been cherry-picked. This is essentially a month-by-month retelling of everything that went down in the year 2020, but all viewed from a slightly skewed perspective. It works, big time.

Brooker has also enlisted considerable star-power for this special. Samuel L Jackson is Dash Bracket, focusing his ironic comments on the rise and fall of a certain Mr Trump. Hugh Grant (never funnier) is Tennyson Foss, a historian who can’t seem to differentiate between genuine history and random events from Game of Thrones. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Trump spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, unashamedly denying the president’s heinous actions even as they unfold on video, right in front of her eyes. And Tracey Ullman is rather too convincing as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Charlie Brooker event without the presence of Diane Morgan, and she’s here too, as Gemma Nerrick, a woman so odious that lockdown has actually worked in her favour, a viewer so overdosed on daytime TV she’s constantly muddling real events and the soaps she’s addicted to.

Of course, some will argue that we shouldn’t be laughing at the horror-show in which we’re all so inextricably mired, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. Chances are, you will to.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Midnight Sky

26/12/20

Netflix

What a strange, mournful film The Midnight Sky is! It’s hardly the feel-good picture to end 2020 on a note of hope and yet, for all that, George Clooney’s futuristic saga exerts a slow-burning grip, as it gradually unfolds a story that takes place in two major locations, millions of miles apart.

It’s the year 2045 and the Earth is comprehensively doomed. There’s been some kind of global catastrophe – the intimation is there’s been a sudden rise in radiation levels – which means that the planet’s inhabitants are counting down their final days. Scientists based in a research station in the Arctic circle, one of the last places to be affected, are making a last desperate bid to escape, but Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) figures there’s no point in going with them. He has a serious illness and has to depend on nightly dialysis in order to eke out his final days – see, I told you it was gloomy!

Lofthouse decides to spend what time he has trying to contact the space craft AEther, which is returning from a mission to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, where they’ve been investigating its potential as an alternative place to live. Lofthouse feels particularly bad about the crew’s situation, since he’s the man who discovered K-23 and is indirectly responsible for sending them out there in the first place. But they are still out of range of his communication signals and he’s rapidly slipping away.

Then Lofthouse discovers that he’s not alone. A little girl is hiding out on the base. Iris (an adorable debut by Caolinn Springall) doesn’t seem to have the power of speech, but she gives Lofthouse another reason to stay alive as long as he can.

Meanwhile, on the AEther, Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), are heading home through a previously uncharted section of space, an area where sudden meteor storms are a regular occurrence. And of course, there’s the added irony of the situation. They and the other members of their crew have no idea that they are all returning to a dying planet…

If my synopsis makes this feel like a somewhat disparate story, let me assure you that the cuts back and forth are nicely judged and expertly handled – Clooney directed this and he’s done so with considerable skill. A series of short sequences featuring Ethan Peck as a younger Lofthouse seem at first to add very little to the story, but they do make perfect sense when we get to its poignant conclusion. Before that, there’s plenty to keep me on the edge of my seat – on earth, there’s a heart-stopping encounter with melting ice and, in the midst of a blizzard, an attack by wolves. Up in the eye-popping splendour of the solar system we witness the most terrifying cinematic space walk since Gravity. And then, in the film’s final stretch, there’s a last act reveal that I really don’t see coming and which has me reaching for a hanky.

The Midnight Sky won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ve already seen some dark mutterings about it on social media, complaints that it isn’t the straightforward action/adventure that people were expecting. Well, fair enough, it certainly isn’t that but, to my mind, it’s much more. It’s a dire warning about what humankind is doing to the world it currently inhabits, a plea for us to start investigating alternative worlds. It’s also a meditation on our inbuilt compulsion to survive at all odds.

And, miserable creature that I am, I find it genuinely uplifting.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ava

10/12/20

Netflix

There seems to be a trend for art-house actors reinventing themselves as kick-ass action heroes. Jessica Chastain, previously best known for floating around in chiffon in films like The Tree of Life, is the titular star of this swaggering punch-em-up, directed by Tate Taylor. Here she plays a professional hit-woman, adept at donning disguises and dispatching powerful men in the most brutal fashion, pausing only to ask them why they think somebody hates them enough to have them offed. It seems she has some Daddy issues, after the callous treatment she received from her own father as a child. Now she’s basically eradicating him over and over again. It’s complicated, but it seems to work.

Ava takes her orders from another Daddy figure, Duke (John Malkovich), her former commander in the army, who seems to be the only person in the world she actually trusts. But, when her unusual approach to killing irks another of Duke’s protégées, Simon (Colin Farrell, sporting a truly horrible haircut), she suddenly finds herself in a very tight corner as her latest mission goes ‘accidentally’ wrong. Seeking a break, she heads home to visit her estranged Mother (Geena Davies), her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), and her old flame, Michael (Common), who has now hooked up with Judy – which is… awkward, to say the very least.

As she is pursued by former-colleagues-turned-assassins, Ava faces a desperate struggle for survival…

The film is engaging enough in a video-gameish sort of way. There are many extended punch-ups, where Chastain has ample opportunity to display all the martial arts moves she’s clearly trained so hard for. If one or two of the fights feel unnecessarily protracted, well, that’s parr for the genre, I suppose. The emphasis on Ava’s parental issues lends this a little more depth than you’d usually expect to see in a film like this and Chastain has done a pretty thorough job of making her character believable. Farrell, always an actor full of surprises, manages to give Simon as much nuance as he can with his limited screen time, speaking softly and acting violently. It’s interesting to note that he’s an unreliable father, too.

There are the usual inconstancies. How is it, after being beaten within an inch of her life, Ava can arrive somewhere ten minutes later, sporting no more than a modest bruise on her cheek? And… I’ll just put this out there… how can we possibly be expected to believe that Geena Davis is now old enough to play the invalid mum of anybody older than Stuart Little? Can this be right?

The conclusion to this bruising tale suggests that Taylor and his team may be angling for another instalment, but I can’t help feeling that this franchise may have punched-thumped-kicked itself just about as far as it can reasonably expect to go.

Still, if mayhem is your go-to, this one should do the trick.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney