Netflix

Dumplin’

10/01/18

Another day, another Netflix movie – and it would seem that the company that once boasted so many below-average releases has really found its feet and is regularly producing work that challenges the output of the more traditional film studios. Take Dumplin’ for instance. This low-budget charmer combines the American preoccupation with beauty pageants with the songs of Dolly Parton, and has plenty of opportunities to turn into a outright shmaltzfest. But it’s surefooted enough to waltz past the potential pitfalls, emerging on the far side as a genuinely heart-warming feelgood affair.

Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald) is a plump teenager living in a small town in Texas with her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). The plumpness, by the way, is an important plot point, not a judgemental description.

Back in her glory days, Rosie was crowned Miss Teen Bluebonnet at a local beauty pageant and has traded on the memory of it ever since, devoting all her spare time to organising similar events, making guest appearances and taking in sewing whenever she needs to make ends meet. For obvious reasons, Willowdean has not pursued a similar path through life and tolerates her Mother’s unthinking nickname for her – Dumplin’ – with as much good grace as she can muster. She works at a local diner, where she’s increasingly drawn to co-worker Bo (Luke Benward), but feels too self-conscious to take the situation further. She’s missing the companionship of her recently departed aunt Lucy, the woman who introduced young Willowdean to the music of Dolly Parton – and who did the lion’s share of babysitting while Rosie was on the road being a ‘beauty queen’.

When Willowdean discovers that Aunt Lucy once held an unfulfilled desire to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant,  she decides that she will take part in it herself as a kind of protest against such an outmoded way of judging a woman’s worth. Naturally enough, this soon brings her into conflict with her mother – and with her best friend, Ellen (Odeya Rush). Can Willowdean work up the necessary confidence to see her unlikely mission through? And what exactly is she hoping to achieve?

This could so easily go horribly wrong, but screenwriter Kristin Hahn and director Anne Fletcher keep their eyes firmly fixed on the film’s central message – that our worth is about more than our looks – and let everything else fall into place. There’s an interesting detour where Willowdean and her friends get some tuition from a bunch of wonderfully nurturing drag artistes and, whenever proceedings threaten to lose impetus, there’s another Dolly Parton classic to power things briskly along. Whatever you think of beauty pageants – and I’ll happily admit they don’t figure highly on my list of favourite things – Dumplin’ is an enjoyable story that even the most pernickety will surely  enjoy.

Fans of Dolly Parton, by the way,  will have a field day.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Bird Box

06/01/19

I’m not sure what to make of Netflix’s latest hit, Bird Box. On the one hand, it’s a decent little sensory-deprivation horror movie (is that a genre now?), nicely acted and directed, and it certainly takes me along for the ride. But on the other hand… well, there’s some pretty dodgy subtext here, and I’m not sure I want to overlook this stuff.

Sandra Bullock is Malorie, single and pregnant, ambivalent about impending motherhood. She wisecracks her way through her maternity appointments and avoids discussing crucial issues such as where a baby might be accommodated in her tiny artist’s studio. Of course she’s an artist: she has to work in a visual medium to underline the awfulness of what comes next.

Not that her art is ever mentioned again, once the mysterious beings arrive and begin their decimation of the human race. The conceit here is that ‘they’ can only get you if you look at them, but if you even catch a glimpse they’ll drive you to kill yourself. I like that director Susanne Bier never lets us see them ourselves, that their awfulness is left to our imaginations. But for the characters holed up in Greg (BD Wong)’s house, where they’ve fled in terror from the first attack, the beings are an ever-present threat, and survival is almost impossible.

There’s a great cast, featuring John Malkovich and Jacki Weaver, Sarah Paulson and Tom Hollander. Trevante Rhodes is Tom, and he’s a charming, likeable leading man. It’s always nice to see Parminder Nagra on screen, albeit this time in a minor role, as Malorie’s obstetrician. And the tension is palpable, even though the time-hopping structure means that we know from the beginning that Bullock ends up a lone adult, looking after two small kids, and pitting her wits against this unknown enemy.

But…

*MINOR SPOILER ALERT*

… there’s the heavy-handed extended metaphor about motherhood to deal with: the implication that Malorie has to endure all this heartbreak and struggle in order to accept her true calling as a mother; that her earlier consideration of adoption for her baby could never really have been the right answer.

And the depiction of people with mental health issues is problematic too. ‘They’ (because they’re different from ‘us,’ right?) don’t commit suicide when they see the beings; they become converts to the beings’ cause, committed missionaries, cajoling and persuading as many people as possible to take off their blindfolds and see the light. It’s unsettling, actually, to see such a toe-curling division drawn between the sane and the insane; I thought we understood things better than that now.

So, on the surface, a fun way to pass an evening. But it doesn’t really bear much scrutiny. If you really want to see something in this ‘genre,’ A Quiet Place is far superior.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

30/12/18

We haven’t reviewed earlier episodes of Charlie Brooker’s excellent Black Mirror series, mainly because we don’t really do TV shows – but a couple of things feel different this time around. For one thing, with so many feature films making their debuts on Netflix these days, it seems more appropriate. And for another, Bandersnatch is something of a game-changer. This is an interactive story, heavily influenced by the ‘make your own adventure’ books of the 1980s and one in which viewers can participate. As the tale unfolds, we are faced with a series of simple decisions: should a character choose Sugar Puffs or Frosties, for example? Clicking on one suggestion or another will influence what consequently happens on the screen. It starts small but the choices become ever more dramatic as the story scampers along.

It’s 1984 and young Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) is an ambitious video game designer, who, after the tragic death of his mother, is living alone with his secretive father, Peter (Craig Parkinson). Stefan, when not spending time with his analyst, Dr Haynes (Alice Lowe), is developing a brand new game called Bandersnatch, which he takes along to major video game publisher, Tuckersoft, headed by ponytailed entrepreneur, Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudrey). At the initial meeting, Stefan is introduced to one of his video game designer idols, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter), and is subsequently astonished to discover that the team like his ideas and want to offer him the opportunity to make it a reality.

But will he accept the offer? Well, that’s kind of up to you…

Bandersnatch is an astonishingly meta idea. As our choices send the action into deeper and ever more labyrinthine rabbit holes, it occurs to me that I am watching something that I am, however tangentially, able to influence. Rather than just being a passive observer, I am involved in the creation of a fiction. It gets even more interesting when characters I am trying to influence begin to disobey me. This is a genuinely exciting idea and it soon becomes apparent that the episode may require at least one repeat viewing to see if different choices will radically affect the outcome.

I’m not suggesting that Bandersnatch is one hundred percent successful. There’s a tendency to come up against buffers which repeatedly send you back to watch the same sequences over again – and I can’t help feeling that one particular outcome may happen in every version of the story – but Brooker deserves plaudits for coming up with this – and Netflix too, for having the chutzpah to finance it.

Where this concept may lead audiences in the future opens up fields for speculation, but to me it feels like an interesting first step. Watch this space.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2018

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2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Outlaw King

 

23/11/18

In a move that is happening with increasing regularity, Outlaw King has gone straight to Netflix. When this first started, I imagined it would only be an occasional thing, but now, it seems, the streaming company have their eyes on the Oscars. The inevitable result is that brilliant films like the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs have been afforded the same treatment; and Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming release, the Oscar-tipped Roma, looks certain to follow an identical path. Oh sure, it will have a ‘limited theatrical release,’ but that may only amount to one week in a few cinemas in London in order to qualify for competition. Ultimately, it means that British cinema goers are going to miss out and this worries me. I love cinema and I want to see it supported not sidelined.

Ironically, this powerful action movie, based around the life of Robert the Bruce is yet another film that really deserves to be viewed on the big screen. There’s sumptuous location photography, filmed (in what is becoming the exception rather than the rule) in the places where the story actually happened. The time is clearly right for the subject. Consigned to a supporting role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robert the Bruce is an important figure in Scottish history, and the man chiefly responsible for securing its independence from England.

When we first meet Robert (Chris Pine), he is renewing his fealty to King Edward the First of England (Stephen Dillane), mostly at the insistence of his elderly father, Robert Senior (James Cosmo), who feels he’s seen enough bloodshed for one lifetime and fears the consequences of taking on his country’s occupiers. Robert reluctantly toes the line, paying his exorbitant taxes and even agreeing to marry Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh, building on her star making role in Lady Macbeth), a woman he has never even met before. But the capture and murder of Scottish rebel leader, William Wallace, brings about a change of heart in Robert and, against all contrary advice, he takes up his sword and sets about trying to unite Scotland against a common enemy. It’s no easy matter and he has plenty of defeats to overcome before he can make any progress. But as the saying goes, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’

David Mackenzie makes an assured job of all this, handling the more intimate scenes and the epic battles with equal aplomb. The growing relationship between Robert and Elizabeth is sensitively handled but the film is unflinching when it comes to the visceral – a scene where one character is hung, drawn and quartered is certainly not for the faint-hearted. A climactic cavalry charge is so brilliantly immersive, I find myself wincing at every hack of a claymore, every thrust of a lance. Again, this really needs the scale of a cinema screen to fully bring Barry Ackroyd’s superb cinematography to life – even the biggest of home screens cannot hope to do it justice.

Pine handles the Scots accent convincingly enough and there’s nice supporting work by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the pugnacious James Douglas, one of Robert’s closest allies. Those hoping for an appearance by the infamous spider of legend will be sadly disappointed, but lovers of stirring action will find plenty to enjoy here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Cargo

04/06/18

Just when you think you’ve seen quite enough zombie movies for one lifetime, along comes A Quiet Place. And no sooner have you said, ‘okay, great stuff, but that really is enough now,’ than this film appears ready-to-stream on Netflix and you find yourself thinking, ‘You know what? Maybe there is room for just one more.’

Despite a depressingly over-familiar premise, Cargo succeeds largely by putting a new twist on the old ‘Apocalyptic epidemic of the undead’ scenario and by casting Tim from The Office in the lead role. He’s frankly nobody’s idea of an action hero and, somehow, that really works in the film’s favour. We care about him before he’s said so much as a word.

We are in the Australian outback and ex-pat Andy (Martin Freeman) and his Aussie wife, Kay (Susie Porter), are puttering along a river in their spacious houseboat, with their baby daughter, Rosie, at their side. But this is no holiday cruise. The couple are staying well away from the river banks which are now infested with cannibalistic zombies (yes, I know, but bear with me).  Of course, the constant search for food means that they do have to take some chances occasionally and, when Andy spots a wrecked yacht up ahead, he knows they’ll have to row across to it and investigate. The yacht provides some much-needed rations, but also something rather less welcome – a bite from one of the ‘infected.’ In this world, people in such a predicament are provided with a special medical kit which includes a handy sort of ‘illness tracker.’ This gives the victim a 48 hour countdown to their own doom – and, for those who can’t handle it, the manufacturers have thoughtfully included a lethal injection. The problem is that Andy and Kay’s main priority is Rosie and they soon realise that they need to get her to safety before they succumb to their own impending bloodlust.

Meanwhile, on shore, eleven-year-old aboriginal girl, Thoomy (Simone Landers), is trying to come to terms with the fact that her father, Willie (Bruce R. Carter), is himself rapidly succumbing to the same infection. She has come up with her own unusual methods of keeping him under control…

Writer/directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have fleshed out their 2013 short of the same title and have managed to create something which, against all the odds, feels fresh and gripping. I love the fact that the zombies themselves are not given centre stage in this film. Indeed, for the first half of it we barely glimpse them; they remain a terrifying offscreen presence – but we are aware at all times of the possibility of their imminent arrival. (Zombie purists might like to know that these creatures are of the George Romero persuasion – i.e. slow and shambling, rather than their more recent fleet-footed iterations).

What Cargo has in abundance is suspense, which ramps steadily up from the opening scenes and at various points has me shouting ‘don’t go in there!’ at the screen. But of course, people do go in there, repeatedly, which works brilliantly. I love the fact that the film incorporates aboriginal mythology and shows the native Australians to be the ones who clearly know how best to handle the zombie situation (there’s a clear colonial allegory here). Also, the ‘48 hours to doom’ scenario lends the proceedings a breathless, race against time quality that keeps me hooked throughout.

You’d think, that with such a doomed and downbeat premise, it would be impossible to pull a feelgood ending out of the bag and yet, somehow, they’ve kind of managed that too.

So, yes, good stuff… but… that really is enough zombie movies now.

Isn’t it?

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Special Correspondents

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01/05/16

Whatever happened to Ricky Gervais? The glory days of The Office and Extras are now long gone and his occasional forays into cinema have amounted to a few average cameos in other people’s movies and the woeful laughter-free zone that was The Invention of Lying. His new movie, Special Correspondents, is a Netflix original (though actually not original at all, as it’s a remake of 2009 French comedy, Envoyes Tres Speciaux). And, though it pains me to say it, it’s a disaster – a ‘comedy’ that fails to raise so much as a smirk.

Gervais plays Ian Finch, a hapless sound engineer working alongside charmless, bombastic reporter, Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) who has alienated all his colleagues at 365 News and  is now residing at Last Chance Saloon. Ian’s other workmate, Claire Maddox (Kelly McDonald) is the closest thing to a sympathetic character you’ll find in this sorry tale and she isn’t really given all that much to do. Ian is also lumbered with a shrew of a wife, Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) who has all the inherent charm of a car crash and who gleefully cheats on Ian with Frank (though to be fair, Frankdoesn’t know at the time who she is married to).

When a civil war breaks out in Ecuador, Ian and Frank are despatched to cover the story, but Ian, upset by the fact that Eleanor has just walked out on him, accidentally throws their tickets and passports into a passing garbage lorry, leaving them stranded in the USA. Realising that this was his last chance to make good, Frank persuades Ian to help him fake a series of reports from war-torn South America. They are actually holed up in a restaurant across the road with a couple of friends, the almost terminally thick Brigida (America Ferrara) and her husband Domingo (Raul Castillo).

It’s a slight idea and one that is never really nailed – instead, what we get is a lazy, written-by-numbers story featuring embarrassing racial stereotyping, and a series of plot twists you can see coming from several blocks away. More damningly, there’s hardly anyone here you can root for, as McDonald’s character aside, they all appear to be venal, self-interested scumbags with an eye on advancing their own careers. Furthermore, a scene that emulates a faked hostage video is uncomfortably close to images we’ve seen in real life that are a million miles away from anything humorous. I can’t help but wonder if, in the past,  the sadly absent Stephen Merchant acted as some kind of quality control for Gervais. Left to his own devices, he seems incapable of creating anything with any depth.

With a new David Brent movie looming on the horizon, the only hope is that he’s put a bit more effort into that script, because this one is frankly dead in the water.

1 star

Philip Caveney