Netflix

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

17/03/219

This Netflix Original marks actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by William Kankwamba, the ‘boy’ himself. It’s a charming, assured production, even if the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-can’ title rather robs the film of any possibility of suspense.

It’s the mid-noughties and the Kankwamba family live in Malawi in the little farming village of Wimbe. Trywell (Ejiofor) is struggling to make ends meet because the land he works on, after years of irresponsible tobacco farming by Western companies, is alternately flooded or drought-ridden. Since the failure of the last crop of grain, the inhabitants of Wimbe are slowly starving to death. Trywell’s son, William (Maxwell Simba), is desperate to receive a proper education but here admission to a school has to be purchased with hard cash and Trywell has his work cut out just keeping his family fed, so school fees are an unaffordable luxury.

William has long had a sideline in fixing people’s transistor radios, something he seems to have a natural flair for – and, when he manages to salvage an old turbine from a local scrapyard, an idea begins to form in the back of his mind, something which he believes could make his family’s life a whole lot easier. But in order to realise that ambition, he will first have to persuade Trywell to part with one of his most treasured possessions…

It’s a gentle, heartwarming story, made all the more resonant for being based on real events. Ejiofor is terrific as Trywell and Aissa Maiga impresses as his long-suffering wife, Agnes, determined to head off the burgeoning conflict between father and son. But it’s young Maxwell Simba, making his acting debut here, who is the beating heart of the film. He does a good job of conveying his character’s hopes and ambitions, his stubborn refusal to give in when all the odds are stacked against him.

As I said, the outcome of the story is never really in doubt and, ultimately, it takes too long to arrive at its inevitable conclusion. But this is the tale of a remarkable and resilient young man; it’s well worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Velvet Buzzsaw

08/02/19

On paper, it all looks very promising.

In 2014, writer/director Dan Gilroy gave us Nightcrawler, a brilliant movie with arguably career-best performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Velvet Buzzsaw, set in the LA art world, must surely be an opportunity to pull off a similar trick, making us care about essentially unlikable people… mustn’t it? Unfortunately, the characters who inhabit this movie are such an appalling collection of poseurs that it’s hard not to cheer when awful things happen to them. Which is only the first of its problems.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic. One word from this man and an aspiring artist can kiss goodbye to his career (Hmm. I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of influence?). Morf has a bit of a thing for Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works as an assistant to hard-nosed art dealer, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Josephina has lately been struggling in her career but an unexpected opportunity arises when reclusive artist Vetril Dease drops dead at an art launch and she chances upon a massive haul of his paintings hidden in his apartment. Despite the fact that Dease left strict instructions that his work should be destroyed in the event of  his death, Josephina steals his pictures and, with the help of Vandewalt and Haze, sets about selling them to the highest bidders. But Dease was a troubled soul and his paintings have taken on certain aspects of his personality – probably because he used bits of his own body tissue when mixing his paints.

To be fair to Gilroy, he sets out his stall expertly, skewering the world of contemporary art and pointing out that, in this day and age, it is inextricably bound up with commerce. In this film, people cannot mention an artist without pointing out how much his or her work is currently selling for. But having created this world, Gilroy seems to have nowhere interesting to take his characters, except along an extremely well worn path of bumping them off in increasingly unpleasant circumstances. Which would be all right, if it weren’t for the fact that this is supposedly a horror movie and it fails comprehensively to generate any sense of terror. More damning is its predictability. The demise of rival art dealer Gretchen (Toni Collette) is so clumsily signalled, you know what’s going to happen to her well before she does.

And then there’s the little matter of the film’s own internal logic. Many of the deaths here  really don’t make sense in terms of the premise that has already been established. That catchy title by the way, refers to Rhodora Haze’s previous incarnation as a member of a punk band of the same name. It also leads to one of the film’s most tenuous plot twists.

This Netflix Original has certainly divided opinion. I’ve heard a lot of people decrying it and just a few speaking up in its defence, but I have to say I’m with the naysayers. This is, frankly,  a massive disappointment.

Interested parties can find our review of Nightcrawler here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2014/11/03/nightcrawler/

2.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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

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