Netflix

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

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Rocks

30/10/20

Netlix

In one of those weird examples of synchronicity, I’ve just finished writing a monologue about a fifteen-year-old girl whose mum takes off, leaving her home alone and frantically trying to avoid the prying eyes of social workers. And then we come across Rocks on Netflix, and decide to give it a go.

Ah. It’s about a teenage girl whose mum takes off, leaving her home alone, etc.

Bucky Bakray plays Shola, known to her friends as Rocks. When her mum, Funke (Layo-Christina Akinlude), takes off ‘to clear her head,’ Rocks knows the score. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Funke has mental health problems; it’s not that she doesn’t care. She leaves Rocks some money, after all.

But there’s Rocks’ little brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), to consider too. He’s still at primary school, and he takes a lot of looking after. It’s too much for Rocks, and she starts to lose her way, falling out with her best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and taking up with loose-cannon new girl, Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson). Things soon get out of hand, and Rocks’ world comes crashing down.

Rocks is a lovely, heartfelt movie. It’s tragic, yes, but it’s also warm and life-affirming. It’s great to see a film set in London’s sprawling council estates that recognises inner-city poverty without wallowing in it, and that depicts the city’s working-class residents as rounded human beings. It’s beautifully performed by this troupe of teenage actors, and is utterly believable. I’m especially moved by the realistic depiction of friendship here: the girls quarrel, they tell each other unwelcome truths; they cry, they laugh, they are frequently out of their depth – but, ultimately, they care, and that’s enough.

Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Theresa Ikoko, Rocks is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and well worth your attention.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Enola Holmes

28/09/20

Netflix

Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? Enola Holmes is an invention of American author Nancy Springer. The character does not appear in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Furthermore, news that the Conan Doyle estate is in the process of suing Netflix for having the temerity to feature a ‘likeable’ version of the great detective strikes me as faintly absurd. Still, here is the aforementioned Enola, as portrayed by the immensely likeable Millie Bobby Brown, (better known as ’11’ in Stranger Things) in the first of what is intended to be a series of six films – and you know what? It’s really rather good.

Enola is the estranged little sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), though she hasn’t seen either of them since she was a toddler. Brought up by her reclusive mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) she’s been home-schooled in a whole series of unusual subjects, all designed to develop her mind and (importantly) her martial arts skills.

When Eudoria suddenly disappears without explanation, Enola’s care passes to her humourless guardian, Mycroft, who decides to put her in a finishing school run by the dreaded Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw being suitably repellent). But instead, Enola opts to go in search of her mother, using a series of disguises and the kind of detection skills that Sherlock would be proud of. Along the way, she encounters another runaway, Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) and it isn’t long before sparks begin to fly between them. But first, there’s a complicated mystery in need of unravelling…

Handsomely mounted and featuring a whole battalion of revered character actors, there’s much here to enjoy, though it really is Millie Bobby Brown who keeps everything bubbling along, maintaining a jovial conversation with the audience as she goes. This is witty, inventive and – unusually for a Holmes project – has a nicely handled feminist subtext at its heart.

Legal actions not withstanding, there’s every reason to believe that Enola Holmes could go on to be an engaging series, but – should it turn out to be a standalone – it’s still an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Blues Brothers

18/06/20

Netflix

Continuing our (very ) occasional reappraisal of classic movies, I find this beauty lurking on Netflix and immediately feel a powerful need to reconnect with it. The Blues Brothers first emerged in 1980 and I know I watched it in the cinema on its release, but, nearly forty years later, I can no longer recall exactly where I was at the time, nor which particular establishment I viewed it in. No matter.

John Landis’s film came hot off his success with Animal House and is very much a love letter to rhythm and blues. It features a whole host of celebrated performers in cameo roles: Cab Galloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin; they are all trotted out to perform a song apiece as ‘Joliet’ Jake (John Bellshill) and his brother Elwood (Dan Akroyd) go about their ‘mission from God,’ trying to raise $5000 dollars to save the orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. $5000 dollars probably seemed a lot of money back then.

The overall feel here is of a cartoon made flesh. No matter what outlandish events befall our heroes (they are shot at with bazookas and flamethrowers and, at one point Elwood’s entire apartment block collapses around them), they don’t even raise an eyebrow – and they never remove their sunglasses, even at night. Well, apart from one famous bit…

The action sequences are amped up to eleven. You want a car chase? Sure, but why use four vehicles when you can use one hundred and four? You want to destroy an entire shopping mall in the process? Go on, the budget’s right there, spend it!

Much of the fun here is in revisiting those glorious set pieces. As somebody who played in bands throughout much of my youth and who often found himself performing in unsuitable venues, I will always relish the BB’s comeback gig where they are obliged to take the stage at a country and western bar posing as The Good Ol’ Boys. When their opening number, Gimme Some Loving, causes a riot, they are reduced to bashing out a version of the theme from Rawhide, swiftly followed by a tearjerking Stand By Your Man. Priceless. And of course, who doesn’t relish the scene where the boys drive straight at a group of Nazis forcing them to jump off a bridge into a river? 

Carrie Fisher makes a memorable appearance as the woman who Jake left at the altar and who has pledged to destroy him and his brother, by any means possible.  Something I didn’t expect when rewatching this film was to notice how many great movie actors featured here are no longer with us – and how much I miss them.

Sure, you can argue that the film is decidedly rough around the edges. Many of those featured musicians can’t act for toffee and the guest appearance by Twiggy (who presumably just happened to be around) feels entirely gratuitous. Some of the special effects are very much of their time, i.e. not that special.

But nevertheless The Blues Brothers still rocks, still makes me laugh out loud and provides a perfect tonic for these troubled times. And who could ever forget that famous quote, which in the 1980s, we repeated again and again?

Elwood: “There’s one hundred and six miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Jake: “Hit it!”

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Da 5 Bloods

12/06/20

A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Platform

17/04/20

Netflix

It’s surely just a horrible coincidence that this Spanish dystopian drama, directed by Glader Gaztelu-Urrutia and written by David Desola, has its release in the midst of a global pandemic. But its storyline – a somewhat heavyhanded parable about the world and the way in which it consistently fails to fairly share out its considerable resources –  couldn’t have felt more prescient at any time than it does now. Think about it for a moment. People confined to one space, where their daily meal takes on an-powerful ritualistic quality, and where the diners are dependent on those above them to dole out their only means of day-to-day survival. Sound familiar?

Goreng (Ivan Massagué) wakes up in a cell. He’s in a place called The Hole, a ‘vertical self-management centre.’ He’s actually volunteered to come here and will receive some kind of work-related diploma if he manages to stick it out for six months. Go Goreng! His older cellmate, Trimgasi (Zorion Eguileor) is serving a year for manslaughter and, to add to Goreng’s problems, he’s not much of a conversationalist. Goreng cannot help but notice that there are other cells above him and many, many more below, all of them linked by an oblong vertical shaft. After much prompting, Trimagasi fills him in on how the place works.

Every day, a sumptuous feast is prepared by a battalion of chefs at the top of the tower and is carefully laid out on the titular platform. This is then lowered slowly down the shaft, pausing briefly at every level. The inmates of each cell then have a short space of time to eat what they can, before whatever’s left is lowered to the next set of diners… and the next…. and the next. Inmates can only take what they can eat immediately – any attempt to keep something back is brutally dealt with.

Trimagasi explains that there are reputed to be two hundred levels in the tower and that they are currently on level 48 – a relatively decent place to be – but, at the end of each month, they will be relocated to a new cell and there’s no knowing if they will be moved upwards or downwards. On the lower levels, of course, survival is much more difficult and cannibalism is rife. There are other things to worry about. Even on the higher levels there are suicides, murders and the occasional problem of people voiding their bowels onto those below them.

Each inmate is allowed to bring one luxury with them. Goreng has chosen a book, The Adventures of Don Quixote, which he has always meant to read. More worryingly, Trimagasi has opted for a self-sharpening knife…

It probably goes without saying that those looking for a lighthearted romp to ease them through the misery of lockdown may want to steer well clear of this one. There’s no denying that The Platform is sometimes a hard watch, a dark, brutal tale, garnished with lashings of gore and served up with a side-order of wince-inducing violence. While its message is doubtless well-intentioned, (and undeniably true) it is rather one-note in its approach. While initially compelling, it struggles to hold the attention in the latter stages of its relatively short 94 minute run and, as events lurch bloodily into the final furlong, fails to bring any new flavours to the mix.

Still, this is memorable stuff and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in a while. Who knows, in happer times, I might well have enjoyed it – if that’s the right word – considerably more than I actually do. Perhaps I just have too much on my mind.

Now… what are we having for dinner tonight?

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney