Tom Holland

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

The Current War

26/07/19

This biopic concentrates on the rivalry between two famous inventors and their race to be the first to give America the ‘miracle’ of electric light. The film starts in the year 1800, with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the verge of a breakthrough with his direct current system. But then up pops George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), already a rich man from the gas industry, who proposes an alternating current version, which, he insists, will provide a cheaper and more powerful solution to the problem.

In the ensuing struggle to win the contract to light up America, fair play falls by the wayside; meanwhile, a Croatian genius by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make waves with a series of inventions that have the potential to eclipse the achievements of both Edison and Westinghouse combined.

It’s a fascinating but incredibly complex story, and Michael Mitnick’s script intially feels scattershot as it leaps frantically from location to location in an attempt to nail down all its disparate elements. But it’s worth sticking with, because – after a rather shaky start – the film hits its stride and becomes genuinely compelling, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doing a creditable job of capturing the period. The film highlights a fascinating conundrum when Edison is approached to use his technology to create a ‘humane’ way of executing criminals.

There’s a starry cast here with the likes of Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston and Matthew Macfadyen relegated to supporting roles.

It’s clear where the filmmakers’ loyalities lie. Edison is exposed as a hypocrite, a man obssessed with winning at all costs, at first opposed to using his technology as a weapon, next electrocuting animals willy nilly in order to cast his rival in a bad light. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a much more reasonable type, a man willing to step aside from the glory in order to achieve the greater good. It’s also clear (correctly in my opinion) that Tesla is held up here as the true genius, a man who constantly found his ideas appropriated by his rich financiers and who died destitute, without ever achieving his extraordinary potential.

The Current War isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it does illuminate the difficult birth of something that we now all take for granted, an invention that genuinely transformed the world as we know it. It also depicts the depths that people will sink to in order to see their names go down in history.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: Far From Home

12/07/19

I’ve never been the biggest fan of superhero movies, but out of the pantheon of comic book contenders, Spidey was always my go-to. I read the comics as a teenager, even sent fan letters to Stan Lee at The Bullpen – and I was delighted when, in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gave the world a Peter Parker that looked the right age.

If Far From Home isn’t quite the slice of perfection that its predecessor was, it’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable – and somehow, I feel happier with a spandex-clad character who is actually aimed at a teenage audience, rather than grown-ups attempting to relive their time in the sun.

It’s eight years since the events of Avengers: End Game, and the  survivors are coming to terms with the event that they now refer to simply as ‘The Blip.’ Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in dire need of a little R & R and is fully expecting to find some on his upcoming school trip to Europe. He also plans to tell MJ (Zendaya) exactly how he feels about her, preferably in the most romantic location possible. But Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has other ideas. Now that Spider-Man is a member of The Avengers, he argues, it’s time to step up to the plate and fulfil the promise that Tony Stark saw in him.

Peter keeps his head down and goes on holiday with his schoolmates but, on the first leg of the tour – in Venice – the city is attacked by a gigantic beast made of water. This is one of The Elementals, weird creatures that have come from an alternative reality. Luckily, another superhero pops up to handle the situation. He is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), quickly dubbed ‘Mysterio’ by the local press. Beck tells Peter how The Elementals destroyed his family and he and Peter quickly become friends… but as Peter’s school travel from one picture-postcard location to the next, trouble follows them with a vengeance.

For the first third of this movie, I feel that it lacks a credible villain, but then I realise I’ve been sucker-punched and, after that, everything falls satisfyingly into place. Refreshingly, this is, at heart, a teen movie, with all the tropes you’d expect in that genre. There’s funny interplay between Peter and his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon); Zendaya’s MJ is a delight, light years away from the usual suppliant females beloved of this genre; and there’s a delightful subplot featuring a budding romance between Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau).  Even the climactic CGI punch-up feels fresher and more innovative than most of the competition, with one sequence bordering on the psychedelic.

In the end, I am thoroughly won over and very entertained.

Of course, we all know by now to stay in our seats for the post-credit scenes. There are two on offer here and both of them contain some pretty startling stuff.

‘Nuff said.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming

09/07/17

Of all of Stan Lee’s famous superheroes, Spider-Man was always my favourite when I was growing up. While I dipped in and out of many of the other comics, this was the one I kept coming back to.

On the big screen, Spidey has had a somewhat chequered career. Sam Raimi managed to knock out a couple of decent films with Tobey McGuire in the red suit, but most people would agree that his third installment didn’t really work. Then of course there was the appropriately named Mark Webb’s attempt at a reboot with Andrew Garfield brooding in the title role. Webb gave us two movies, neither of which really brought anything fresh to the party, so the news that the team at Marvel were finally getting the opportunity to give their most celebrated creation a canter around the paddock didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. (The rights to the character belonged to Sony for those earlier pictures – here they’ve agreed to a co-production with Marvel.)

Happily I was wrong. This is easily the best Spiderman movie so far and, arguably, one of the best superhero movies ever, made doubly enjoyable largely by virtue of the fact that director Jon Watts has jettisoned the usual grim and grimy approach in favour of something lighter, fresher, and a lot funnier. And thankfully, he’s skipped the ‘Spiderman origin’ aspect completely, because by now we all know it by heart, right?

Fifteen year old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is working hard on his ‘internship’ with Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Junior), which pretty much means that he’s left to his own devices, patrolling his local neighbourhood in his spare time, taking care of petty criminals and the like, under the supposedly watchful gaze of Stark’s chauffeur, Happy (Jon Favreau). But when, as Spiderman, Peter comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his gang, things become a lot more complicated. Toomes has made use of salvaged alien technology left over from the last Avengers dust-up and, utilising that, has restyled himself as super villain The Vulture. The trouble is, Peter’s attempts to alert Happy to this new threat largely fall on deaf ears… and meanwhile, he has to negotiate the kind of problems that every teenager goes through – passing his exams, fitting in with his peers and dealing with a powerful crush on a classmate – in this case, Liz (Laura Harrier).

What this new film gives us, finally, is a credible teenage hero. Neither McGuire nor Garfield managed to really convince as high schoolers. Holland, such a powerful presence in The Impossible a few years back, is incredibly appealing here, displaying an almost puppylike eagerness to please his mentor, Stark and also pulling off some expertly-timed slapstick pratfalls. And the credibility extends in other directions. At last, in Toomes, we have a believable villain, a man motivated not by some obscure desire to destroy the world, but simply to better himself and his family after being screwed over by the big corporations. Aunt May is not the white-haired elderly widow we’ve come to expect but, as played by Marisa Tomei, she’s a gutsy, interesting character, doing her very best to bring up her nephew.

Despite the involvement of six screenwriters, the sprightly script keeps us guessing and, at one point, even manages to throw a great big googly ball at us that I really didn’t see coming.

Homecoming has the kind of chutzpah that should keep everybody happy, from devoted comic book fans to parents simply looking to give their kids a fun ride at the cinema. Make sure you stay in your seats until the end credits have rolled – the film has one last, very funny scene, to send you out of the cinema with a great big smile on your face.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Captain America: Civil War

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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