Month: September 2016

Hell or High Water



Brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are industriously robbing a series of small banks in West Texas and going to great lengths to conceal all evidence of their crimes. They aren’t doing it for the usual reasons, though, but in a desperate attempt to pay off a crippling loan on their late mother’s ranch, in order to secure the future of Toby’s two sons from his failed marriage. When the robberies come to the attention of aging Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, (Jeff Bridges), he resolves to solve one last case before he retires…

Hell Or High Water is a searing look at the underbelly of America, where ordinary people struggle to make ends meet and where the real criminals (at least in the view of writer Taylor Sheridan) are the bankers, who make a rich living from foreclosing on those who can no longer afford to pay for their homes. It’s a side of the USA we rarely glimpse in movie theatres and for that at least, it deserves our attention. There’s plenty here to enjoy. Bridges excels as the crusty-as-last-month’s-tortillas lawman, forever bickering with his Native American partner, Alberto (Gil Parker), while lamenting a way of life that seems as doomed as the ranchers we glimpse herding their cattle away from a raging brushfire. And can we really take wholeheartedly against the Tanner brothers, when they are in such a desperate plight?

This is an unapologetically elegiac story, as stripped and spare as the desert landscapes in which the events take place – but as with Sheridan’s previous script, Sicario, it’s almost exclusively a man’s world and you’ll have to look very hard indeed to spot a properly developed female character. Forget the Bechdel test – all we are offered here is a parade of hookers, harpies and harridans – a shame, because just like Sicario, this is an otherwise assured production, strong on action and the hard bitten verbal interplay between its main characters.

The ending hints at unfinished business but wisely leaves us wanting closure. It’s a lean, taut action movie but the inclusion of some decent female characters would have lent it more depth, and assured it a higher score from yours truly. It’s good, but ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Magnificent Seven



This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney


Audrie & Daisy


Audrie & Daisy is a Netflix documentary, and it’s a timely and important exposé of the sexual exploitation of school girls by their peers. As an ex-teacher, one of my first thoughts on watching it is: this needs to be shown in schools. How heartening, then, to discover that it is indeed being used to educate, and that there are even lesson plans for teachers to download ( Tragically, it’s too late for Audrie, who committed suicide, but telling their stories – actually being heard – must be cathartic for Daisy, Delaney, Paige and the other girls who feature here. But the film’s main importance lies, I think, in protecting other potential victims.

At its core are two sexual assaults: Audrie (15) was abused and photographed while unconscious at a party, and Daisy was raped by her older brother’s friend, while incapacitated by alcohol. When everyone at school saw the pictures of her, Audrie couldn’t cope and hanged herself. Daisy, thankfully, has survived her ordeal, but the toll it’s taken is clear to see – on her and the rest of her family.

I don’t think it’s an over-reaction to say everyone should see this. We all need to hear these stories and acknowledge the reality of sexual assault. We all need to be reminded about consent and culpability. It’s easier to sweep such accusations under the carpet, easier to go along with, ‘Well, they were all just drunk, things got a bit out of hand.’ But that’s not the truth, and it’s not good enough.

Because it isn’t just their assailants who have hurt these girls, it is the ill-equipped system and the wider community too. From the high school gossips to the social media trolls, from the mayor who hates negative stories to the misogynist sheriff, a lot of people bear responsibility for victim-blaming, and worsening the girls’ ordeals. The bravery of these young women, their determination to tell their stories, and their selflessness in making themselves vulnerable again: these are things to admire indeed.

We hear Daisy’s story in her own words; she’s an articulate, intelligent young woman, and it’s heartbreaking to hear what she’s endured. Audrie’s tale is filtered through her mother, her best friend and – compellingly – the hesitant testimonies of her assailants, JohnB and JohnR, who have been animated to protect their identities. “I knew it wasn’t right,” says JohnR, “I’ve never felt good about it.” How much better for everyone it would have been if he’d been equipped to recognise sexual assault for what it is, if he’d had it drummed into him that an unconscious person can’t consent. Because JohnR is probably a decent guy; he’s the only one here who expresses remorse. “The boys have put it behind them and moved on,” says Sheriff Darren White, an odious self-righteous man, who thinks he’s got things sorted out. “It’s just the girls who won’t do that.” Well, it’s harder for the victims, Sheriff, especially when the whole town seems to have turned against them, and the justice system has let them down.

And that’s why this film needs to be seen. Because we need to stop a new generation from growing up to think like Darren White. So watch this documentary. It tells its stories well, with a clear eye and a dispassionate tone. And, if you’ve got kids, show it to them too.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Cameo Cinema Beer & Food Event

Stitched Panorama


We’ve all heard of food and wine tastings, of course, but the good people at the Cameo Cinema clearly feel that beer really should be afforded the same privilege as its close cousin  – and why not? Like many nations around the world, here in the UK, we consume a lot more amber than we do red or white. Beer often gets bad press, but did you know that it is fat free and has considerably fewer calories than wine? And that it has a lot less sugar than you might think? Hence this intimate meeting for forty lucky members of the Cameo Cinema in their delightful cafe bar (already our favourite drinking place in Edinburgh), where four vegetarian food courses are served, each matched with an appropriate beer.

First up, we’re offered a taste of San Miguel, matched with a tasty slice of Spanakopita (spinach pie), a filo pastry parcel filled with feta cheese, spinach and chopped onions. The twosome make a perfect match, the crisp, zesty lager cutting through the tangy taste of the filling. San Miguel is, of course, always perceived as the ultimate Spanish product – so it might surprise you to discover that it was first brewed (to a Spanish recipe) in the Philippines. These days, of course, it’s brewed in an even more exotic location: Northampton.

Next up we are served with a shot of London Pale Ale (I fondly remember this stuff being my dad’s drink of choice before lager was popularised in the 1960s). This is accompanied by a delightfully flaky vegan samosa filled with sweet and spicy mediterranean vegetables. Once again, the two items are an inspired match, the yeasty ale contrasting nicely with the samosa. Pale ale is also, we are told, an excellent partner for burgers and for Mexican food. You’ll hear no argument from me on that score.

The third nibble is a bowl of vegetable chilli, which has a rich, smoky flavour and a powerful kick to boot. This is paired with a wheat beer called Blue Moon, a malted America beer brewed Belgian-style. Here, the strong flavour of the cloudy beer is exactly what’s needed to cut through the strength of those chipotle chillies. Our hosts ask us if we think it’s a good combination and we answer in the affirmative.

I have a small twinge of anxiety as the fourth and final course is served. Out comes a glass of Black Ball stout, a Williams’ Brothers beer (a popular draught option at the Cameo), and this has been paired with a chocolate brownie. Now, I would never drink a stout on its own; I always find the flavour of roasted malt a bit too much, but I have to admit that, when taken in conjunction with a gooey sticky chunk of brownie, something rather magical happens – the two elements combine to provide a mouthful of what can only be described as sheer heaven. This turns out, against all the odds, to be my favourite pairing of the session.

Clearly the Cameo staff know what they’re doing – this event has been expertly put together. Those who would like to explore the subject a bit more should get themselves down to the Cameo bar with all speed – those who would prefer to learn more at a distance may care to investigate – where all things beer and food-related are examined in more detail.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Under the Shadow


It is the 1980s and, in war-torn post-revolution Tehran, young mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), struggles to look after her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshedi). Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is a doctor, and when he’s called away to work at the front line, Shideh feels horribly isolated in her city apartment. She has long wanted to be a doctor herself but, because of her political activism whilst at university, she’s been banned from ever pursuing such a career. Indeed, she has to keep many things secret – even the fact that she owns a VCR on which she watches Jane Fonda workout videos – and naturally, like all women in the city, she can no longer be seen out on the streets without covering her hair with a hijab.

A near miss from an Iraqi missile, plunges her apartment block into turmoil and things get even more complicated, when neighbours start muttering about the presence of Djins – evil spirits, borne on the wind, that seek to take everything from their chosen victims. At first, Shideh dismisses the notion as superstitious nonsense but, as inexplicable occurrences begin to mount, she starts to believe that there may actually be something in the stories; and that one of the things these shadowy creatures wish to take from her is her daughter…

Under the Shadow uses all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie to tell its story – there are jump-cuts and scare moments aplenty here, all of them skilfully executed; but writer/director Babak Abvari’s assured story is quite clearly an allegory, one that relates to the oppressive situation that Shideh finds herself in, while the collapsing apartment building is clearly a comment on her own mental disintegration, as well as the country’s demise. If it reminds me of another film, it’s Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where Catherine Deneuve goes through a similar process but, where she is alone, Shideh has her vulnerable daughter to worry about (a delightful performance from young Manshedi). As the slow-burning tale builds steadily towards its catharsis, the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a world of mounting terror.

The intriguing conclusion eloquently points out that the impact of war and the suppression of individuality have a long-lasting effect on their victims. Abvari should be congratulated. He’s created a film that offers everything you’d expect in a successful horror movie… and a good deal more besides.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Girl with All the Gifts



The Girl with All the Gifts is a  zombie movie with a difference: we see events unfold from Melanie (Senna Nanua)’s point of view – and Melanie is a ‘hungry.’

Hungries are second-generation zombies and they seem different from the depraved creatures first infected by the virus. They can speak and they can learn – and, if Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) is right, they can be used to develop an antidote that will save the human race. And this is where the tension lies: do we agree with Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the teacher and psychologist, who says they’re children? Or do we side with Sgt. Parks (Eddie Considine), who believes they’re monsters?

We’re on Justineau’s side, of course; how can it be otherwise in the face of Melanie’s nature? Sure, she’s hungry for blood, and she might find it hard to curb her appetite, but she’s sweet and clever and vulnerable – and capable of love.

This is a fascinating film, ably directed by Colm McCarthy, a perfect allegory for regime change and its moral complexities. The dystopia is beautifully rendered: a complete vision of a ravaged London, with a dwindling number of safe places, a doomed effort to survive against the odds. The acting is uniformly impressive, and young Nanua shines among this seasoned cast; she’s certainly one to watch.

Okay, so there are a few plot holes: how can Justineau get food without breaking the airlock, for example? And how did that dog manage to stay alive for so long? The scenes where the first-generation zombies give chase all feel a little over-familiar for a film that’s this original. But overall it’s a resounding success and I highly recommend you watch it.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Bridget Jones’s Baby


Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t like Bridget very much. Admittedly, in 1996, when Bridget Jones’s Diary was a newly-published book, I thought it was an entertaining read. Helen Fielding has a sprightly style, and the humour is easy and accessible. The narrative of noble goal-setting and ignoble failure works really well. And so I read the sequel and then I watched both films. And I don’t think any of them are bad: they’re funny, well-made, appealing tales. It’s just… Bridget. She’s so bloody passive. And I know she’s a character, not a role-model, and I don’t expect a protagonist without flaws, but there’s so much of Bridget, she’s so ubiquitous a figure – and she really, really drives me mad.

In this latest outing, nothing’s really changed. It’s still slick and competent, still laugh-out-loud funny, still complacent with its privileged world view (where Bridget, a successful TV producer living in at least half a million pounds’ worth of property, is somehow presented as a sort-of failure, poorer than all her friends, playing Cinderella to her rich suitors). She’s forty-three now, still single, still waiting for life to happen to her – and she’s bored; the old gang can’t be relied on for company, because they’re all too busy with their kids. She tries hanging out with the younger Miranda (Sarah Solemani) instead, but soon lands herself in trouble: after two one-night stands, she finds herself pregnant. But who’s the father? Is it Jack (Patrick Dempsey), the billionaire dating guru? Or Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), the love of her life?

What follows is a sort of comedy of manners, and it’s adroitly done. Of course it is: look at the cast and crew. Renée Zellweger imbues Bridget with an understated warmth and likability, and Emma Thompson (as Dr Rawlings) is as sardonic and witty as you’d expect – she’s the best thing about this film. It’s an engaging and engrossing tale, and the payoff – if predictable – is worth the wait.

My advice? Watch it. Enjoy it. Try not to get annoyed.

4 stars

Susan Singfield




Netflix’s filmic arm continues to grow in stature and Tallulah is a fine example of the kind of project they do particularly well. It reunites Juno’s Ellen Page and Allison Janney, in an absorbing and entertaining story about relationships. Page (who has complained that she struggles to find decent screen roles since coming out as gay, obviously knows a good script when she sees one – she executive-produced this film).

Tallulah (Page) is a rootless young woman, who lives in a van and drifts around America making ends meet by indulging in petty crime. Her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) is however, beginning to miss the stability of his former home (he hasn’t been back there for two years) and suggests that they pay a call on his mother, Margo (Janney) an academic living alone in a luxury New York apartment after her husband left her and moved in with a man. Tallulah is less than keen on the idea and she and Nico have an argument. The following morning, Tallulah wakes to discover that Nico has walked out on her.

She promptly heads off to Margo’s apartment asking if she has seen Nico, but Margo sends her packing. Shortly afterwards, Tallulah has a chance encounter with Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) a character who initially seems to have been created to illustrate a ‘how not to parent’ video. Carolyn has a hot date that night and enlists Tallulah (who she’s never met before) to look after her toddler while she’s gone – but Tallulah decides to take the little girl and heads back to Margo’s place…

Tallulah is a decidedly amoral character but Page invests her with great charm, hinting at the damage that was caused to her when she was abandoned by her own mother as a little girl; Janney meanwhile, is on terrific form as a prickly introvert woman who finds all relationships difficult – her clumsy attempt to seduce an amorous doorman is a delight. As the two women spend time in each other’s company, a powerful bond develops between them; but meanwhile, the police are investigating what is, after all, a kidnapping and it soon becomes apparent that things cannot end well for Tallulah.

This is a superior slice of drama, nicely acted, wittily scripted and directed by Sian Heder. More than anything else, it’s a film about women and their relationships – and it absolutely aces the Bechdel test. If you have Netflix, you really should check it out. If you don’t, this could be a valid reason to sign up.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hunt for the Wilderpeople



New Zealander Taika Waititi’s last film, What We Do In The Shadows, offered (against all the odds) a refreshingly original take on vampirism – and the oddly titled Hunt for the Wilderpeople is another quirky and unusual film, set in the writer/director’s homeland. It tells the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a troubled teenager in care whose unruly behaviour has pretty much exhausted the list of foster families prepared to give him a chance. In a last-gasp effort to find him a suitable home, he is placed with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly husband, Hec (Sam Neill), who live in a shotgun shack in the middle of nowhere.

After initial teething troubles, Ricky takes a shine to Bella and, for the first time ever, his future looks promising – but then she dies unexpectedly and Hec isn’t slow to point out that having Ricky here was all his wife’s idea. Plans are set in motion to take Ricky back into care, whereupon, he heads off into the outback, determined to fend for himself – and Hec has little option but to go after him. After an accident obliges Hec to lay up for several weeks to recuperate, Ricky and Hec finally begin to bond…

The interplay between Neil and Dennison is a winning combination, delightful and often hilarious – while the succession of eccentric characters they encounter throughout the film adds to the fun, particularly Rhys Derby’s ‘Psycho Sam,’ a deranged hermit who spends much of his time disguised as a bush. Rachel House also shines as child services official Paula, determined to find Ricky and throw him back into care.

Okay, the film isn’t perfect – you can’t help wondering how Ricky can spend five months in the outback, living only on what he and Hec can forage, without losing so much as a pound in weight, for example –  but the New Zealand locations are absolutely ravishing and there’s no denying that the tale is enough to reel you in and keep you hooked right up until the epilogue. Waititi’s  decision to present the film as a series of chapters is also a nice touch. If you’re looking for something different from the usual Hollywood fare, this is a sure bet and the 12A rating means it’s suitable for family viewing.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Blair Witch


In 1999, The Blair Witch Project was something of a phenomenon, a made-for-buttons movie that became a resounding success, both critically and financially. The pared back plot, the found-footage concept, the shaky-cam and the ingenious blending of the story with real life (fake news reports, the actors listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ on IMDb, etc.) all combined to make a movie that felt – if a little ragged – at least original and compelling.

The same cannot be said for this 2016 reincarnation. Although ostensibly a sequel (Heather’s brother heads into the woods to search for his sister, taking along a group of friends, one of whom just happens – who’d have thought it? – to be a film student, making a documentary), it’s essentially the same story – but worse.

These adventurers have better technology than their predecessors (they’re definitely from the richer, privileged echelons of society, with student budgets that allow them to buy drones and tiny cameras with built-in GPS) but it doesn’t really help them – or us. The GPS doesn’t work properly in the haunted woods, the drone crashes – and we’re still left watching a load of blurry shaky images.

Where the original used the power of suggestion, showing little and leaving much to the imagination, this new movie shows us too much. The Blair Witch is far less scary when she’s visible, just a dime-a-dollar horror prop. And there are too many jump scares that are all the same: a loud noise, it’s getting closer, oh it’s you, please don’t do that! In fact, it’s repetitive all round. We don’t just run through the house once, we have to follow a second character in there too. And potentially interesting ideas are set up but then fade to nought (what’s the point of showing us Lane’s confederate flag if nothing else he does links back to it?).

It works on some levels: there is tension and a little suspense. The acting is fine. Some of it looks good. But, overall, this is one to miss. It doesn’t stand up to the original.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield