Uncle Frank (streaming)
Verdict: Flawed but engaging
The Kid Detective (15, in UK cinemas)
Verdict: A cinematic red herring
A family drama set mainly in smalltown South Carolina, Uncle Frank could be the love-child of a William Faulkner novel and a Tennessee Williams play, were it not for an ever-so-faint resemblance to The Dukes Of Hazzard.
In other words, it’s good, nearly very good, and I sat through the first half of the film contentedly relishing a lot of fine writing and classy acting, both in the service of a story that makes up with zest and wit for what it lacks in originality.
But writer-director Alan Ball, whether or not he knows he shares his name with an England football legend, then misses an open goal.
Having done all the hard work and built plenty of narrative momentum, he undermines his own movie with a plunge into melodrama and theatricality that his picture doesn’t deserve.
Still, let’s start with its considerable virtues.
Paul Bettany plays the title character, and although the quality of his banter may have been horribly exposed during the recent Johnny Depp libel trial, when boorish text exchanges with his great pal Depp were solemnly read out in the High Court, nobody has ever doubted his quality as an actor.
Uncle Frank could be the love-child of a William Faulkner novel and a Tennessee Williams play, were it not for an ever-so-faint resemblance to The Dukes Of Hazzard
The 49-year-old Englishman is tremendously good as Frank Bledsoe, a literature professor teaching at New York University in the Seventies, safely removed from the judgmental eye of his belligerent father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root).
Frank is gay, you see. His decade-long partner is Walid (Peter Macdissi), a Saudi Arabian immigrant who escaped state-sanctioned homophobia in his own country.
But beyond the bigoted Daddy Mac, few members of Frank’s family know his ‘secret’, least of all his bright but unworldly teenage niece Betty (Sophia Lillis), who acts as a narrator and tells us that her Uncle Frank, her father’s brother, is the only grown-up she knows who looks her in the eye.
Lillis, an absolute ringer for the young Amy Adams, is a real delight, playing the ingénue with irresistible charm.
Sophia Lillis, an absolute ringer for the young Amy Adams, is a real delight, playing the ingénue with irresistible charm
Four years pass. Thanks to Uncle Frank’s encouragement, Betty has dared to leave her home state, breach the Mason-Dixon line and even change her name. She is now a freshman at NYU, known as Beth.
Then she and her uncle return home for a funeral, where he is compelled to confront his past, and the fractured relationship with his father, in ways that threaten to expose all the insecurities he has mostly managed to overcome in cosmopolitan New York.
As I say, there is nothing terribly original about a middle-aged gay man on a journey of reconciliation, both with himself and with his hidebound relatives.
But fans of the long-running TV drama Six Feet Under, which Ball created, will recognise his trademark warmth and humour, and some of the same family dynamics.
Moreover, the performances of Bettany, Lillis and Macdissi (Ball’s real-life partner), not to mention a terrific supporting cast led by the ever-dependable Margo Martindale and Judy Greer, keep us firmly invested at least until the last half-hour or so, when this warming Southern corn chowder of a movie overdoes the corn.
Strangely enough, The Kid Detective also lurches from one kind of film into another, and in a way that is far more disconcerting.
Written and directed by Evan Morgan, it at first unfolds, rather appealingly, as a whimsical black comedy.
Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, a man who in childhood was a brilliant sleuth, a kind of wholesome Enid Blyton character lionised by the townsfolk of Willowbrook for solving a series of minor crimes.
The Kid Detective follows Abe Applebaum, a man who in childhood was a brilliant sleuth, but whose reputation plummeted when he was unable to nail a real grown-up crime
Unfortunately, his reputation plummeted when he was unable to nail a real grown-up crime, the abduction of his teenage assistant, Gracie. Now he is 30-ish, still operating as a private detective, but floundering.
Even his parents have lost faith in him.
Abe’s chance of redemption comes when a teenager, Caroline (Sophie Nelisse), asks him to investigate the murder of her boyfriend.
This propels both him and us into a labyrinthine plot which becomes ever more disturbing, startlingly at odds with the film’s comic set-up.
Morgan tosses us plenty of clues to indicate what he is trying to do cinematically, almost taunting us with a jaunty, retro crime-caper score (and Nancy Sinatra’s joyful Sugartown as the theme song).
But I don’t think audiences will like being led up the garden path — not when the rewards are as relatively scant as they are here.
Uncle Frank streams on Amazon Prime Video from next Wednesday.
The Kid Detective is in UK cinemas that are still open, and will be available in more once lockdown is over.
Fitting tribute to Jack the genial giant
Finding Jack Charlton
Finding Steve McQueen
With the family of the late Nobby Stiles this week drawing attention to the ‘scandal’ of dementia afflicting so many ex-footballers, Finding Jack Charlton, about another stalwart of England’s 1966 World Cup team — who also died this year, with dementia — could hardly be more timely.
Better still, it’s a superb piece of documentary filmmaking.
So bobble hats off to Gabriel Clarke, writer and co-director (with Pete Thomas), who focuses largely on Charlton’s successful ten-year tenure as manager of the Republic of Ireland team.
The fury that greeted his appointment — ‘Go Home Union Jack’ said the banners — gave way to adulation, indeed one of his admirers, U2 drummer Larry Mullen, credits him and his players with effectively reclaiming the Irish tricolour from the Republican movement.
Chronologically, the film hops about, frequently flitting from the Ireland glory days back to Charlton as he shuffled on in feeble old age, an occasional fleeting grin the only faint echo of that thunderous charisma which I once encountered myself, wondering, like so many others who interviewed him, not how to get him talking but how to make him stop.
The brilliance of Find Jack Charlton is that it celebrates his whole life, acknowledging what not everyone does, that he didn’t stop living after dementia tightened its grip
The brilliance of this film is that it celebrates Charlton’s whole life, acknowledging what not everyone does, that he didn’t stop living after dementia tightened its grip.
It also tackles his uneasy relationship with his younger brother Bobby (another now similarly diagnosed) and boldly addresses another terrible sickness: alcoholism.
Charlton wasn’t an alcoholic but one of the lions of his Ireland team, Paul McGrath, most certainly was.
For me, the thoughtful contributions of McGrath, reflecting on his alliance with ‘Big Jack’ and how his drinking imperilled it — ‘he understood that I loved him’ — provide a compelling film with its most moving moments.
From Finding Jack Charlton to Finding Steve McQueen who would ever have thought those two would be linked by title, if not by genre and still less by quality?
Alas, this comedy is a desperately derivative effort, a Seventies heist caper inspired by the true story of a gang who robbed a bank containing what they thought was President Nixon’s slush-fund money.
Travis Fimmel gives a laboured performance as Harry Barber, the one gang member who escaped the FBI, and a McQueen wannabe.
The film, for that matter, is a Reservoir Dogs wannabe. Not even the always-classy Forest Whitaker, as the lead Fed, can save it.
A worthier recommendation is Patrick, also a comedy of sorts, even though the laughs are rooted in the existential pain of the slow-witted title character, whose father dies, leaving him to run the family business – which happens to be a naturist campsite.
Mostly in Flemish but with some English and French, it’s an extremely quirky affair (much of the narrative follows Patrick’s attempts to find his lost hammer), but worth seeing if only for a fight between two naked men in a mobile home, one of the most bizarre scenes of this very bizarre year.
Finding Jack Charlton is available to download from Monday, following a limited UK cinema release.
Finding Steve McQueen is on digital platforms now, and Patrick is in some cinemas and on VOD from today.