Netflix

Uncut Gems

19/01/20

Hold the front-page! Adam Sandler has made a good movie. Actually, he’s made an excellent one. That’s not something I get to say very often.

To give the man his due, those with long memories will recall his assured turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and, more recently, he was pretty decent in The Meyerowitz Stories, but these lapses into quality are few and far between. Most of his output can be filed under E for ‘Embarrassing.’ So his starring role in the Safdie Brothers Uncut Gems is something of a revelation. Not only does he nail the central character perfectly, it’s hard to imagine any other actor being such a perfect fit.

Howard Ratner (no relation) is the proprietor of a jewellery store, situated in New York’s infamous ‘diamond district.’ Our introduction to him is unusual to say the least, as it’s via his small intestine – he’s having a colonoscopy. Howard is a wheeler-dealer, a man with a perpetual grin on his face and a gaze fixed resolutely on his next big score. He’s married to the long-suffering Dinah (Idina Menzel), he has several kids and he lives in a nice house in the suburbs. He also owns a swish city apartment where he entertains his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who is also an employee at his store. Against all the odds, Julia clearly loves Howard, and he is thinking seriously about leaving Dinah, who really doesn’t like him at all and has no hesitation in telling him so.

Howard senses that the biggest deal of his career is about to pop when he acquires a chunk of African rock containing a vein of rare ‘black’ opals, which he plans to put up for auction. But a visit to the store by famous basketball player Keven Garnett (gamely playing himself) complicates matters, as Garnett takes a shine to the stone and asks if he can ‘hold on to it’ for a day or so. Howard is understandably reluctant but finally agrees when Garnet leaves his championship ring as surety. But the problem is, Howard is an inveterate gambler, in hock to some very dangerous people – and when Garnett puts off returning the stone, a hideously complicated chain of events ensues.

The resulting action feels somewhat akin to a two-hour panic attack as Howard lurches from one desperate scenario to the next, being punched, excoriated and at one point literally stripped naked as he races frantically around, attempting to head off potential disaster. The Safdies achieve the seemingly impossible here by making me root for the frankly odious Howard; indeed, I’m soon so invested in him that I spend most of the movie perched on the edge of my seat, chewing my fingernails and praying that things will turn out well for him. And I’m hooked right up to the film’s heart-stopping conclusion.

Those who can’t cope with stress may not want to watch this. At times it feels like a genuinely life-shortening experience. But that, in my book, is a recommendation.

Uncut Gems will be streaming on Netflix from the end of the month, though I suspect its considerable powers will be somewhat diminished through the filter of a small screen. If you get the chance to see it in the cinema, take my advice – get it booked, grab a seat and buckle in for a thrill-ride.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

At Eternity’s Gate

14/11/19

Here’s one I missed at the cinema, but – as is increasingly the case these days – it’s right there on Netflix for anyone to see at the click of a button. While this would definitely benefit from the immersive qualities of a big screen, beggars can’t be choosers.

Julian Schnabel’s film of Vincent Van Gogh concentrates on his years in Arles and, later, at Auvers Sur Oise. Willem Dafoe stars in what is possibly the role he was born to play, so convincingly does he settle into the great man’s persona, and he greatly deserved his Oscar nomination.

This is far from a straightforward biopic, however. Indeed, anybody who prefers a clear narrative arc will probably have a tough time with this. There’s a lot of footage of the artist, easel strapped to his back, wandering for miles across the French countryside in search of the elusive ‘perfect light’ and the film takes its own sweet time over those sections. But there’s no doubting the power of the sumptuous cinematography of Benoit Delhomme, which really does capture the unique look of Van Gogh’s paintings.

A lot of big names pop up in cameo roles. Oscar Isaac is a suitably swashbuckling Paul Gaugin, Rupert Friend is Vincent’s endlessly patient brother, Theo, and Mads Mikkelsen gets the dubious honour of portraying the priest at an asylum, who unashamedly informs the artist that his work is ‘ugly and without merit.’ Dafoe, meanwhile, suffers for his art in utterly convincing style and generates pity for Vincent as well as anger at the horrible treatment he receives on an almost daily basis.

There’s a powerful payoff when, after his mysterious death (which is frustratingly skipped over), we witness Vincent lying in his coffin, surrounded by his paintings and we cannot help but see that the mourners are already taking more interest in his work than they ever did when he was alive.

An interesting effort, then, and – while it lacks the jaw-dropping power of Finding Vincent – it’s still essential viewing for fans of one of history’s greatest artists.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

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

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