Bones and All

31/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Every director is entitled to at least one mistake. In the case of Luca Guadagnino, the mistake was to follow the sublime Call Me By Your Name with a muddled, pretentious remake of Dario Argento’s classic horror, Suspiria. So it’s gratifying to report that Bones and All takes a significant step back in the right direction. With a screenplay by David Kajganich, based on a novel by Camille DeAngelis, it’s a film that recklessly crosses several genres but ultimately emerges as something quite unique – part horror film, part road movie, part love story – and the various components work together brilliantly.

We’re on the shabby backstreets of Reagan’s America in the mid 1980s. Maren (Taylor Russell), an eighteen-year-old high schooler, lives with her father (played by André Holland), who keeps her under a tight rein, even locking her in her bedroom every night. But after receiving an invite to a slumber party, she sneaks out to join up with three friends for an evening of gossip, booze and makeovers. It’s all going swimmingly until, without warning, the fun stops…

After what happens, Maren and her dad are obliged to skip town and, shortly thereafter, Maren wakes up to finds herself abandoned. Her father has walked out, leaving only some money and a Walkman, with a lengthy explanation for his actions captured on cassette tape. Maren discovers that she is an ‘eater’ – someone who is drawn to feasting on human flesh, a condition passed onto her by her mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby. Maren decides her only option is to go in search of her mom in the hope of finding a solution to her problems.

En route, she encounters Sully (a deliciously creepy performance from Mark Rylance). He’s a fellow eater, who has managed to track her down by her familiar smell. Sully offers her companionship and claims he can be her protector, her guide to this unfamiliar new world – but, despite spending some time with him, even sharing one of his ‘meals’, she grabs the opportunity to escape at her earliest opportunity and goes on with her journey. And then she meets another of her kind, Lee (Timothée Chalamet), with whom she finds she has much more in common. The two of them bond and decide to travel together. As they drive across country, they begin to wonder if there is any escape from their current situation.

Calm, languorous and set against the epic scenery of the American West, Bones and All is an incredibly compelling story, by turns romantic and repugnant. Make no mistake, the feeding scenes are explicitly visceral and can be hard to take – the film’s 18 certificate is there for a reason. The central allegory of the story suggests many themes, but to my mind the key one is addiction. The more Maren and Lee strive to break out of the life they’ve begun to hate, the more circumstances conspire to pull them back into its tenacious grip.

Those who find gore unsettling may prefer to give this one a wide berth, but if you can tolerate some carnage, there’s so much here to admire. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another film quite like this one – and I’m fascinated to discover where Guadagnino goes next.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

She Said

29/11/22

Cineworld. Edinburgh

She Said sets out its stall in the first few minutes. New York Times journalist Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) is about to publish a story about women being sexually abused by a presidential candidate, and the accused man calls to refute the claims. He’s boorish and threatening. The story is published, and the victims learn they were right to be afraid of speaking up. While they get death threats and envelopes of dog shit through the post, Donald Trump gets elected president.

So when Twohey and her colleague, Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan), begin to investigate rumours about Harvey Weinstein, they know what an uphill battle they face. The system is skewed in favour of powerful men. Uncovering the truth is relatively easy; acquiring sufficient evidence to publish it is horribly complex. As if persuading understandably anxious women to out themselves to a global audience weren’t difficult enough, there are also NDAs to contend with. How are these malignant settlements even allowed to exist? They’re just get-out-of-jail-free cards for rich arseholes, who can easily afford to spaff megabucks on silencing the people they abuse. But Twohey and Kantor are tenacious, and refuse to give up. It’s not easy for either of them. Kantor has a young family, and Twohey is in the throes of post-natal depression. Calls come at all times of the day and night – both threats from trolls and revelations from sources – but still, they can’t let go. It matters too much. So they grit their teeth and crack on, relying on their partners to do the lion’s share of parenting. (It’s refreshing, actually, to see Ron Lieber and Tom Pelphrey in these peripheral, domestic roles that are usually reserved for women.)

Maria Schrader’s understated direction works well, illuminating the sheer grit required to bring a prolific sex offender to account. The screenplay, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, draws on the book written by the two journalists, and focuses on the painful process rather than the assaults. This is one instance where telling is better than showing: we don’t need to see these women being abused. Instead, we see the aftermath. We see how, while Weinstein continued to live the high life, perpetuating his attacks over and over again, any woman who dared to reject him or, worse, complain about his behaviour, had her life turned upside down. From Ashley Judd (appearing here as herself) being blacklisted and branded ‘a nightmare to work with’ to Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) fleeing to Guatemala, the fallout was immense.

The performances are detailed and meticulous. Kazan and Mulligan both fizz with pent-up energy, and the supporting cast are just as committed. Jennifer Ehle stands out as Laura Madden, attacked by Weinstein back when she was a young assistant, naïve and excited to be working for him. Thirty years later, she has a double mastectomy to deal with, so speaking out seems urgent, not least to show her daughters that they don’t need to internalise abuse.

She Said does a good job of highlighting the inherent power discrepancies in our society, and how ‘consent’ is problematic if one party holds the other’s prospects in their hands. It also shows how we can fight back.

#MeToo.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

25/11/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Hats off to the Lyceum for this revival of their 2019 success. It’s a bold decision – to repeat a production quite so soon – but it seems likely to work. The last three years have been hard on theatres, and it makes sense to opt for a crowd-pleaser. Tonight’s crowd certainly seems pleased: the atmosphere in the auditorium is electric, and the show is as lively, funny and heartwarming as it was last time around.

This time, there’s added poignancy: Cratchit’s careful selection of a single coal for the fire is all-too relatable; Scrooge’s casual dismissal of the poor horribly similar to the Tory government’s. This lends the piece a somewhat zeitgesity air, which wasn’t there before. It’s a shame for Britain, but it’s good for the show.

The tale is so ubiquitous, there can’t be many who don’t know the story of miserly Scrooge and the three ghosts who visit him to make him mend his ways (in fact, I overhear a little girl behind me say, “I think I’ve seen this before, Mum, but there used to be Muppets in it”). Last time around, the Edinburgh location provided a few surprises, such as the inclusion of Greyfriars Bobby and the weirdness of setting an historical Christmas story in a Scotland that didn’t officially celebrate the occasion until 1958, but this time that’s familiar too. I think that’s the joy of it: no one’s here for a surprise. We’re here for some festive nostalgia, and we get it in spades.

Using puppets for Tiny Tim and Bobby, two of the cutest, most heart-string-tugging characters in fiction and history, is an unashamedly calculating act, and it works. Brought to life by puppeteers Stacey Mitchell and Hannah Low, the pair are simply adorable, garnering the biggest cheer at the end of the night.

I find Nicola Roy funny in all of her roles (except for Belle, of course), but particularly as Mrs Bigchin, the Salvation Army charity collector. She and Lottie Longbones (Belle Jones) make me laugh out loud every time they appear on stage. But this is really Crawford Logan’s play: he makes an impressive Scrooge, imbuing the man’s emotional journey with gravitas and credibility.

The set (by Neil Murray) is lovely, like a series of Christmas cards, a backdrop and a few simple flats cleverly generating a whole range of locations. The spirits’ magic is also simple, relying mostly on lighting (designed by Robbie Butler and Zoe Spurr) and glitter, validating the axiom that “less is (sometimes) more”.

The use of local young actors as John and Lizzie Cratchit, along with the community choir’s carol singers, makes it feel as though An Edinburgh Christmas Carol really belongs to the city: it is inclusive and celebratory.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Cell Outs

24/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As true stories go, the plot of Cell Outs is a remarkable one. Written and performed by Harriet Troup and Ella Church and directed by Grace Church, it’s the tale of two naïve drama school graduates who enlist on a new scheme that promises to allow them to bring their social justice dreams to light in the prison system. Sounds exciting, right? They eagerly sign up and, after just six weeks of basic training, they find themselves enrolled as… prison warders, working in two adjoining gaols. Troup is based in a male prison (delicately titled HM Prick for the purposes of this drama) while Church works at the women’s prison (HM Pussy).

They quickly learn that opportunities to use their drama skills are nonexistent. Instead, they must negotiate the endless litany of drug dealing, scrapping, tongue lashings and suicides that are part and parcel of everyday prison life. At first, they’re appalled by what they witness but, as the days roll inexorably by, they become increasingly hardened to the horrors, inured to the misery around them and in serious danger of becoming everything they dislike about the system.

Troup and Church are engaging performers and they attack their roles with gusto. We are presented with a series of sketches chronicling their descent into the abyss, interspersed with voice recordings from inmates and fellow workers. They also perform occasional musical interludes, which – it must be said – vary in quality. A clever parody of ‘Doe, a Deer,’ utilising prison vernacular is a particular highlight, but some of the rap-inflected offerings feel more generic.

If there’s a major issue here, it’s the play’s story arc, which starts bleak and funny and, without really developing, soon becomes just plain bleak. Furthermore, many of the major dramatic occurrences later in the drama are told rather than shown; for the true tragedy to strike home, we need to see a climactic incident played out before our eyes, rather than just hear about it.

Cell Outs is a unique story with a powerful central message, but it’s a message that occasionally feels a little obfuscated in its delivery.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Aftersun

24/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Writer/director Charlotte Wells’s debut feature arrives in UK cinemas, virtually creaking beneath the wait of a whole series of prestigious award nominations. It’s easy to see what influenced those who bestow such accolades. Aftersun is far more experimental than the average British independent; indeed, at times I’m put in mind of the work of American genius, Sean Baker, which is intended as a compliment. This sad, lyrical little film, set in the late 90s, follows the misadventures of a young father and his eleven-year-old daughter as they attempt to bond on a package holiday to Turkey.

Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) arrive at their hotel in the dead of night to a series of familiar disasters. Paul has asked for two beds in their room and there’s only one. Furthermore, in daylight, the resort resembles a building site with hammers and drills providing an intrusive soundtrack to those seeking a relaxing day’s sunbathing. But the two of them are here for a holiday and that’s exactly what they’re going to have.

As the languorous days unfold, it becomes apparent that not everything is quite as it should be. We learn early on that Paul is divorced from Sophie’s mother and that she has started a relationship with someone else. Paul seems sanguine about it, though on phone calls home, he still tells his ex-wife that he loves her. And there are some unanswered questions. Why does Paul have a plaster cast on his arm when he arrives? And why is he so vague when Sophie asks him how it happened?

The film unfolds like a series of half-remembered experiences, which makes perfect sense when we are offered scenes of a grown up Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now a mother herself, looking back on the events of that trip and trying to piece the experience together. Cinematographer Gregory Oke makes everything look ephemeral, often choosing to depict scenes as reflections on a TV screen or in a hotel room mirror, sometimes offering us half-obscured images that don’t tell the whole story. Much of the action is captured as playbacks on Paul’s modest little video camera.

Mescal is terrific but it’s Corio who really knocks it out of the park, nailing the insecurity and apprehension of a young girl at a difficult age, just beginning to experience a growing interest in the teenage boys who hang about the resort. In the skies, a parade of colourful hang gliders often appear to be just out of Sophie’s reach, offering her some kind of escape. But Paul keeps telling her she’s too young to try them out…

This is a gorgeous film, sweetly sad and tinged with tragedy and is as ambitious a first feature as I’ve seen in a very long while. Wells surely has a bright future ahead of her but, for now, Aftersun is a pretty impressive start.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Tim Minchin: BACK

23/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The tagline for BACK promises “old songs, new songs and fuck you songs” – and that’s exactly what we get. It’s great to see Minchin ‘back’ on the stage, albeit – for today – via the medium of screen. I loved Matilda, and am truly sorry his animated movie was so cruelly canned, but I did miss Tim-the-performer while he was working on those other projects, and BACK is a triumphant return.

I admire his resilience. Whatever private tears were shed over the Hollywood let-down, his public self is irrepressible. And I imagine live performances as popular as these provide quite the tonic for a bruised ego.

BACK is wide-ranging – both topically and musically. There’s an ode to cheese, a rant about progressives’ infighting and a plaintive memorial to a lost loved one; there’s a capella, solo piano and an accomplished eight-piece band. This makes sense: after all, the show is loosely constructed as a memoir, looking back at almost thirty years of an unusual career.

Three hours seem to fly by. Minchin’s ebullience makes him fascinating to watch, as well as listen to: this is as much a spectacle as it is an evening of song. As if his trademark bare feet, big hair and eyeliner weren’t arresting enough, he’s rarely still, jumping on and off the piano, doing backward rolls off the stool, and even sweeping broken glass off the stage (his own glass, I should add; the crowd is on his side).

Standout moments include If I Didn’t Have You, for it’s cheeky observations, and I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, for its wistful honesty, but the whole show works well. I find myself impressed anew by Minchin’s witty lyrics and musical dexterity, and I’m also engaged by his attempt to confront the thorny issue of ‘cancel culture’ from a liberal standpoint, highlighting the hypocrisy of promoting empathy via rage.

The tour is over, but this recording remains, and – if you get the chance to see it – do. Minchin is a joy.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Thirteen Lives

20/11/22

Amazon Prime

I’m unfashionably late to this one. This film barely had a theatrical showing in the UK and somehow managed to slip onto streaming services without much fanfare. This is a shame, because Ron Howard’s ‘based on a true story’ feature steadfastly refuses to go down the typical Hollywood hero route, instead offering a meticulously researched account that unfolds its complex story with all the authority of a documentary.

It takes us back to the familiar events of July 2018, when Thai junior football team, The Wild Boars, accompanied by their assistant coach, decides to pay a trip to a popular tourist destination, the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Chiang Rai Province. As they wander deep into a rocky labyrinth, they are unaware that an early Monsoon has arrived, and that flood waters are already rising with terrifying speed, to come pouring in through every crevice. When the boys fail to show for a planned birthday celebration later that day, their parents raise the alarm – but, by now, their kids are trapped deep beneath the ground – and the rain is still pouring.

Among the many volunteers who subsequently arrive to lend a hand are two experienced divers from the British Cave Rescue Council, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortenson) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who handle the ensuing search through submerged tunnels with quiet calm and determination, only pausing to squabble over which of them ate the last custard cream. Both Mortensen and Farrell do a great job of capturing the men’s distinctive Coventry accents and their bluff, matter-of-fact approach to their highly specialised work – something which has already defeated the team of Navy SEALs who were first on the scene.

Finding the boys proves to be relatively easy, but getting them out alive – well, that’s a more complicated process, which will involve thirteen individual underwater journeys, each lasting more than seven hours. The boys have no experience of cave diving – indeed, some of them can’t even swim. With this in mind, Stanton and Volanthen decide to recruit more of their cave-diving chums. Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), Jason Malinson (Paul Gleeson) and Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton) all answer the call, but it is the latter who will give the team their decisive edge, largely because of the special skills he’s acquired through his day job…

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the enterprise has a successful outcome – indeed, pretty much the whole world knows how that went. But this film demonstrates what a complicated and dangerous procedure it was, how fraught with the possibility of disaster – and it is to Howard’s credit that though viewers already know the outcome, he nevertheless manages to generate nail-biting suspense throughout many of the extended underwater sequences.

He’s also keen to point out that the mission’s eventual success is not just due to the divers. There’s the young engineer who, with his own team of volunteers, works around the clock to divert millions of gallons of water away from the cave – and there are the local farmers who agree to sacrifice their entire rice crop for the year, in order to help with that process. There’s a whole army of ordinary people, cooking, carrying, doing anything necessary to keep the cogs turning. And happily, there’s no mention of a certain Mr Musk and his less than helpful approach to the situation.

Thirteen Lives is a story of human endurance and a celebration of the ingenuity of the many people who worked together to bring a seemingly impossible task to fruition.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Wonder

19/11/22

Netflix

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is a little jewel of a novel, a bleak tale seen entirely through the eyes of its main protagonist, Lib. Because the original story is so insular, I wondered if it would be a suitable subject for a film, but director Sebastián Lelio (who co-write the screenplay with Alice Birch) has done a creditable job of opening up the original vision, even throwing in some post-modernist flourishes to accentuate the artifice of the situation. The opening scene depicts a contemporary film studio, complete with lighting rigs and other equipment before the camera pans right and zooms in to the hold of a nineteenth century sailing ship, where Lib (Florence Pugh) is eating a meal. From the very beginning, Leilio seems to be warning us not take everything we see on face value. The Wonder, after all, is also a story of deception.

It’s 1862 and English nurse Lib Wright has been summoned to a remote Irish village to stand watch over the Wonder of the title – eleven year old old Anna O’ Donnell (Kila Lord Cassiday), who, it is claimed, has not eaten a morsel of food in four months and yet remains in apparently perfect health. Lib is understandably sceptical, but the local clergy, led by father Thaddeus (Ciarán Hinds), are keen to claim this as a bona fide miracle, a feather in the cap of the Catholic church. Dr McBrierty (Toby Jones), on the other hand, prefers to see Anna as some bizarre new mutation. Has she developed the ability to photsynthesise? Lib’s task will be to keep a close watch on Anna around the clock, alternating shifts with a nun, Sister Michael (Josie Walker), so that – if there is any secret feeding going on – it will soon come to light.

Lib’s suspicions are shared by newspaper journalist Will Byrne (Tom Burke), who has been despatched to his old stamping ground to investigate the claims, but the truth behind these ‘saintly’ events is well hidden and hard to root out…

The Wonder makes a successful transition from novel to film, largely because of Pugh’s sterling performance in the lead role, as well as through Ari Wegner’s moody cinematography, which somehow contrives to make every frame look like the work of a classic artist – Jan Vermeer perhaps, or Caravaggio. There are also a few moments where Anna’s older sister, Kitty (Niamh Algar), who also serves as the story’s narrator, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer directly. Some may find these touches intrusive but, for me, they are so effective they have me wishing there were more of them and that Algar had a little more to do in the story – she’s a superb actor and this is little more than a supporting role.

Donoghue’s source novel, a scathing criticism of the Catholic faith and the gullibility of its followers, emerges intact – and those who anticipate a headlong plunge into despair should take heart. The film’s conclusion is more positive than you might expect.

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

Watcher

16/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Not to be confused with the recent Netflix series with a very similar name, Watcher is a psychological thriller in which a young woman begins to suspect that she is being targeted by a killer. Directed by Chloe Okuno, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zack Ford, this is a powerful slow-burn of a story, where the central character’s sense of mounting paranoia makes a viewer continually reassess what’s happening onscreen. Is it all just a series of coincidences? Or is the woman in serious danger?

Julia (Maika Monroe) accompanies her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to his home city of Bucharest, where he is starting a new job in marketing. His busy schedule means that he is often away from their rented apartment late at night, and Julia is pretty much left to her own devices. She’s trying to learn to speak Romanian, with the aid of an online language course, but she’s a novice and can barely understand what people are saying – her landlady, a barista, even her husband’s colleagues when she invites them to a dinner party. Meanwhile, a series of grisly murders is happening in the city, attributed to a killer whom the newspapers have dubbed ‘The Spider.’

And then Julia notices that, from an upstairs apartment across the street, somebody is watching her…

As is so often the case with a film like this, it would be wrong to give away too much of the plot. Julia’s sense of alienation is heightened by the fact that the filmmaker’s don’t offer subtitles for what the many Romanian characters are saying, and her only real friendship is with Irina (Madelina Anea), the young woman in the next apartment, who thankfully speaks English. Julia gets little help from Francis, who clearly thinks his wife is simply paranoid and has a tendency to gaslight her every time she mentions her concerns. As matters build steadily to a shattering conclusion, I find myself entirely swept up in Julia’s predicament. The final scenes actually have me holding my breath…

This is a fabulous, low-budget chiller that deserves an audience, so I’m horrified to note that, at the morning screening we attend, we are the only two people in the auditorium. Can the cinemas survive if people continually opt to stay at home and watch films on their small screens?

Meanwhile, Watcher is powerful reason to get off your sofa and visit your nearest multiplex.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

15/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

In 2019, Black Panther was a genuine delight, a superhero movie that dared to challenge the preconceptions of the genre. What’s more, it was a film that made Black audiences, previously poorly represented in the world of spandex, flock to cinemas in their millions. Of course, after such phenomenal success, there was always going to be a sequel, but the tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman (who played the lead role of T’Challa) left writer/director Ryan Coogler with a real quandary. How could he hope to make another Black Panther without Boseman? Should he recast the role? Or might there be another way?

Wakanda Forever opens with T’ Challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), desperately trying to engineer a cure for the ‘mysterious illness’ that has recently claimed her brother. But of course, it’s already too late and soon she and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) are presiding over an elaborate funeral service, full of dancing, drumming and joyous singing. This feels as much like the cast’s heartfelt farewell to Boseman, as it does part of the story. But a story there must be, so…

We begin with a raid by armed soldiers on one of Wakanda’s outreach posts, an attempt to steal some of the priceless vibranium that makes the African nation the most powerful in the world. But Wakanda’s battalions of fearsome female warriors are lying in wait and one of those 12A style punch-ups duly ensues – the kind where no blow quite lands and no deaths are too clearly signalled. To add to the confusion, it’s all filmed at night, employing a particularly muddy palette, so it’s not always clear exactly who’s not quite punching who. Not an auspicious start.

And then it transpires that somebody else in the world has vibranium! He’s Namor (Tenich Huerta), a sort of merman with winged feet, who commands the Meso American undersea kingdom of Talokan (he’s better known as The Sub-Mariner in the source comic books). Namor is looking to form an alliance with Wakanda and warns Queen Ramonda that, if she refuses his invitation, he’ll consider her an enemy and will declare war on her people. She’s adamant that she won’t accept his terms, so war it shall be.

It was never going to be an easy task to follow up Black Panther, but it’s disheartening to witness just how completely this attempt fails at almost every step. The mournful reality of what’s happened behind the scenes seems to have infected the whole project, reducing it to a collection of turgid conversations featuring people talking about very serious matters in gloomy chambers. Shuri, previously an enthusiastic bright spark of a character, a sort of Q to Boseman’s Bond, has grown up to be a seriously sombre young woman, weighted down by the realisation that she must take on her brother’s former responsibilities. Meanwhile Basset’s Queen Ramonda seems permanently angry about everything and spends most of her time alternately shouting and sneering at people. As T’ Challa’s former wife, Nakia, the excellent Lupita Nyong’o is given precious little to do and the same goes for Martin Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, who seems to have been handed the thankless task of being the ‘comic relief.’ Where the first film hurtled gleefully along, fuelled by its own sense of reinvention, Wakanda Forever trudges dejectedly from scene to scene. At times, I am dangerously close to falling asleep.

Okay, there’s an admittedly epic final battle between the Wakandans and Namor’s aquatic hordes (who, it must be said, look like they’ve wandered in from the set of Avatar) – and, for the more patient viewer, there’s a post-credit sequence that offers up a genuine surprise – but by then it’s far too late to save this project from the doldrums. Some may argue that Coogler has taken the franchise into even more uncharted territory, but unfortunately, Wakanda Forever takes me to places I really don’t want to visit.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney