Sebastian Stan

The Devil All the Time

23/09/20

Netflix

Imagine the vibrant Americana of the Coen Brothers, twisted into a seething vat of venomous corruption and you’ll pretty much have the measure of The Devil All the Time. Directed and co-written by Antonio Campos and based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who serves as our narrator), this is a multi-layered, labyrinthine slow-burner of a film, where a whole string of characters are linked by a series of weird coincidences. In Pollock’s bleak world view, the blame for most of the evil that plagues humanity can be laid squarely at the door of organised religion.

The central character, Arvon Russell (Tom Holland), is one of the few sympathetic human beings in this narrative, and even he is someone given to Old Testament levels of brutality towards anyone who wrongs his much-loved step sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvon’s violent tendencies stem from the treatment he received from his God-fearing Dad, Willard (Bill Skarsgard), who very much believed in the eye-for-an-eye approach and whose treatment of the family pet is particularly hard to stomach. Lassie Come Home, this really isn’t.  

Elsewhere, we encounter the Reverend Preston Teagarden (Robert Pattinson), a sleazy preacher with a predilection for seducing young girls: crooked cop Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) who’ll do whatever is necessary to further his ambitions, and a particularly vile couple, played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, who get their kicks from picking up young male hitchhikers…

On paper, it all sounds rather relentless but, unfolded as it is in a slow, measured narrative, it’s a surprisingly powerful brew. As Arvon is led inexorably deeper and deeper along the path to retribution, I find myself gripped right up to the final credits. It helps that a whole menagerie of talented actors submit nuanced performances here, particularly Holland who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s a lot more to him than slinging webs.

This may not be to everybody’s taste. As a vision of the United States, there’s little here resembling any kind of hope for the country’s collective soul. Indeed, it is a tale so excoriating, so morally bankrupt, that you can only feel a nagging worry for the society that spawned it. 

The Devil All the Time is a Netflix original, ready to watch whenever you have the time, or the nerve, to take it on.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

I, Tonya

18/02/18

Just when you think  the Oscar race can’t get any tighter, in swaggers I, Tonya, straight out of left field and hits you with a hefty sucker punch, right in the kisser. This noisy, brazen biopic is wonderfully enervating and it’s clear that its claim to be ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’  isn’t so very wide of the mark. Indeed, the constant jumping from time-frame to time-frame, the fake interviews, the occasional deadpan remarks delivered straight to camera and, above all else, the wonderful classic rock soundtrack – all serve to remind you of Martin Scorcese’s finest movie. But it’s much more than just a pale imitation of that film. There’s so much to admire here, not least Margot Robbie’s incendiary performance in the title role.

Tonya Harding, it seems, had a fight on her hands from her earliest days. Knocked around by her hard-as-nails, chain-smoking momma, LaVona (Alison Janney, in brilliant Oscar-baiting form), beaten up by her ne’er-do-well husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), she manages to battle through, performing manoeuvres on the rink that no other skater has ever dared to try –  but her ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ persona doesn’t stand her in good stead with the judges, who like to see a little more deportment doled out alongside the leaps, twirls and pirouettes.

Of course, we all know why she came to wider attention – through the notoriety of a vicious attack on her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), which left her hospitalised just as they were both preparing to skate in the Olympics. Despite being only tangentially involved in the incident – it was originally devised as a series of poison pen letters by Jeff and then pumped up out of all proportion by Tonya’s so-called ‘bodyguard,’ Shawn – Tonya ends up paying the highest price when Shawn decides to go a bit further with the plan and enlists the aid of some very dodgy people indeed. What follows is so bizarre, it can only be a true story…

Director Craig Gillespie handles the material with an edgy, almost experimental approach, throwing in slow-mo and jump cuts with glee – and the mesmerising skating sequences are so cleverly staged, you literally cannot see the joins. That appears to be Robbie on the screen, skating up a storm, but it can’t really be, can it? Like many other recent biopics, there’s a final sequence of interviews showing the real life protagonists, just so you can fully appreciate how close these characterisations keep to the originals, which is particularly surprising in the case of Paul Walter Hauser’s hilariously off-the-wall performance as the cartoonish Shawn. It’s an eye-opener.

Go and see this riotous, hard-hitting and occasionally hilarious film and enjoy what must qualify as one of the strangest sporting stories in recent history. And as for that rock soundtrack, if you can manage to sit in your seat without twitching and foot-tapping along in accompaniment, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

4.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Captain America: Civil War

NEsoFG6dA3s9vt_2_b

19/05/16

I’ve been going through a severe bout of spandex withdrawal recently, so I approached this film with extreme caution, despite having heard several favourable reports. The Marvel universe is becoming an out-of-control behemoth, which seems obliged to draw in more and more comic book characters as it trundles along, until there are so many costumed characters onscreen, it starts to overpower the story lines.

Having said that, Captain America: Civil War starts promisingly, roping in some surprisingly serious ideas that for once, do not seem aimed purely at its teenage fan boy audience. In Nigeria, to thwart an attempt by some bad guys to steal a dangerous chemical agent, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and three of the other Avengers get a little carried away with the general kick-assery and in a scene that put me in mind of Team America: World Police, a whole bunch of innocent civilians are killed in the crossfire.

The United Nations decides to issue an edict that the Avengers are not to act off their own bat any more but only if and when granted permission to go into action. Half of the team, headed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) think this is a reasonable idea and elect to sign the necessary forms – but the other half, headed by Captain America, refuse to commit to it. And then, Bucky Barnes /The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is roused from his slumbers to undertake a mission on behalf of his Soviet puppet masters and the Captain finds himself torn between helping his old friend or hunting him down…

Up to this point, it’s all nicely done, but then, inevitably, the opposing sides in the United Nations squabble square up for a battle, enlisting extra help from other Marvel characters and the story buckles under the weight of servicing the antics of so many costumed characters – Ant Man, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Black Widow, War Machine, Vision… even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is brought back into the proceedings as an eager-to-please teenage recruit (a single fun idea in the midst of the mayhem, though it’s nowhere near enough to rescue the film from what’s coming.) The resulting airport-based punch-up seems to go on for ever in that cartoonish 12A way that Marvel have perfected over the years and any hope of coherence goes straight out of the nearest window. Of course its all skilfully done, but it’s somehow distressing to witness so much expertise (and dare I mention, so many millions of dollars) wasted on what amounts to a souped-up brawl.

I appreciate that I’m not in the target audience for films like this, but honestly, Marvel need to understand that less is more. This feels like a great big, bloated exercise in extreme tedium. An accompanying trailer for X-Men Apocalypse appeared to offer another indigestible helping of the same sort of pudding.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney