Netflix

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

 

 

Red Joan

11/04/20

Netflix

We missed Red Joan at the cinema, so tonight, searching Netflix, we’re pleased to see it’s now available to watch at home. Sadly, despite having Trevor Nunn at the helm and Dame Judi in the lead role, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Actually, the disappointment is partly because of the Dame. Not that she puts a foot wrong, of course, just that she’s not given anywhere to put her feet at all. She has almost nothing to do.

Red Joan is very loosely based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a cold war spy whose crimes only came to light in the 1990s, when she was an old woman. Here, in a script by Lindsay Shapero based on a novel by Jennie Rooney, Norwood is reimagined as Joan, a Cambridge physics student, who falls for the glamour of the communist set, before landing a graduate job working on the H bomb. Dench plays Old Joan, an eighty-year-old woman living a quiet suburban life, whose sudden arrest is a shock to everyone around her, not least her barrister son, Nick (Ben Miles). But, as her interrogator (Nina Sosanya) barks questions at her, Dench’s role mainly consists of listening impassively, then twisting her lips and saying, ‘Well…’

And then, each time, we’re into flashback territory, and the real lead role is clearly Young Joan, played with aplomb by Sophie Cookson, who is clearly destined for major stardom. But not only is this a criminal waste of Dench’s talent, the repetitive structure makes the film feel lumpen and heavy.

It’s nicely acted by all concerned, and the period details are lovingly realised. There are some interesting moral questions raised; it’s a very watchable movie. But, overall, Red Joan doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not sharp enough, not bold enough. Perhaps it’s just too much of a compromise: too far removed from the real story to have any heft, Norwood’s less palatable tale neutered to make Joan’s actions more morally acceptable.

There’s a better way to tell this tale.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

When Marnie Was There

09/04/20

Netflix

We’re continuing our Ghibli odyssey, courtesy of Netflix, and tonight’s selection is 2014’s whimsical When Marnie Was There. Adapted from Joan G Robinson’s 1967 Norfolk-based novel, Keiko Niwa’s script moves the action to a small Japanese coastal town, where asthmatic twelve-year-old Anna is sent for a summer of clean air and recuperation.

Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is a troubled kid: fostered because her parents are dead; socially awkward and unpopular at school; good at art but too self-conscious to let anyone see her work; habitually tongue-tied, but volatile – so that, when she does speak, it’s usually in anger. A holiday in the countryside with the kindly Oiwas (Susumu Terajima and Toshie Negishi) is just what she needs, for her mental as well as her physical health.

On a solitary walk in the marshland, Anna spots a derelict mansion, and feels strangely drawn to the place. There, she meets Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), a mysterious blonde girl, who lives in the house with her parents and servants. The friendship that develops is fierce, intense – and, at Marnie’s insistence, secret. Anna becomes obsessed; her feelings for Marnie are all-consuming. But not everything is as it seems…

When Marnie Was There is as beautifully crafted as you’d expect from this deservedly renowned studio: the drawings are delicate and sumptuous and full of emotion. The images of water and food are particularly lush, the latter almost making my mouth water.

And if the story is light and the revelations predictable, it’s nonetheless charming and very well told.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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