Month: July 2021




M. Night Shymalan. There, I’ve uttered the forbidden name.

Mister Night Shymalan is something of an enigma to me. Most people know of his trajectory, making a spectacular debut in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and then working his way steadily downwards ever since. There have been a lot of films over the intervening years, from the halfway-decent to the downright unwatchable. Lady in the Water? The Happening? After Earth? I had reached the point where I vowed I’d never watch another one.

And then I started hearing good things about Old. ‘A surprising return to form.’ That kind of thing. Hmm. Could that be right? So, inevitably, here I am, back at the cinema, giving him one more chance to surprise me.

To be fair this is one of his better efforts, though a five star review in the Guardian seems wildly over-enthusiastic. This sub-Twilight Zone story is all about a bunch of people experiencing the holiday from hell. (We’ve all been there.) Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krips) have been going through a bad patch, possibly because she’s discovered she has an inoperable tumour, so they’ve gathered up their kids and headed off to a fancy beach resort in search of a little quality time. The resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) tells the family about a ‘special’ beach they might like to visit, a place where they won’t feel so crowded, so the following day they climb aboard a mini bus and head for it. (Sadly they fail to notice that the bus is being driven by M. Night Shymalan, which should perhaps have been a warning.)

They arrive to find that there are quite a few other holidaymakers there, all of whom seem to be suffering from one kind of malady or other. A dead woman is found floating in the water. And then Guy and Prisca notice that their two kids appear to be ageing very rapidly…

The Shymalanisms dutifully ensue in mind-bending fashion. There are deaths and a birth, transformations and deteriorations. Charles, a doctor (Rufus Sewell), loses his marbles and runs amok with a knife. Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) has an epileptic fit. People bleed and contort and drown. This film is not short on incident.

And yet… and yet… many of the old problems are still here. Shymalan’s script (based on a graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Lévy) is clunky, while his characters often speak and act like no human beings on the planet ever would. And then there’s the inevitable ‘twist’ ending where Shymalan tries to explain what’s been going on, but I still cling to my theory that, no matter how weird the goings-on, the internal logic of any story should remain rock solid – and here it really doesn’t. Plus… call me old fashioned but is it really wise in the midst of a global pandemic to point the finger of blame at the devious nature of scientists? I think not.

Maybe the problem is mine. Maybe I just don’t get M. Night Shymalan. But as I said, while this is one of his better efforts, that really isn’t saying very much.

Sorry – and maybe cancel that holiday booking, before it’s too late!

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney




Shot in 2019 and the winner of several prestigious awards, Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin is a self-consciously weird film about a middle-aged man’s nervous breakdown and his attempts to reinvent himself as a ‘film maker.’

Bleakly surreal and sometimes just plain bonkers, it seems to be trying to make a point about the filmmaking process itself but, if that’s true, it’s one that virtually drips with a massive dose of self-loathing. To follow Dupieux’s logic, filmmaking is a sham, a perfect hiding place for the untalented. There are always financiers eager to horn in on somebody else’s efforts and the general public are happy to do just about anything so long as there’s a camera pointed at them. Which is all pretty dispiriting when you think about it.

Georges (Jean Dujardin) runs out on his marriage, puts his sports jacket down the nearest toilet and buys himself a fringed deerskin affair for what seems a ludicrous amount of money. The seller of the jacket (probably feeling guilty) gifts him a digital video camera. Georges then drives to a remote, mountainous location somewhere in France and checks into a dingy hotel, where he sets about trying to achieve a very unusual obsession.

He wants to be the only person in the world allowed to wear a jacket.

He also decides to film himself while he’s attempting to make that odd ambition a reality. His wife (quite sensibly) decides to block his bank account, so Georges talks receptive local barmaid, Denise (Adèle Haenel, last seen by B & B in the mesmerising Portrait of a Lady on Fire), into financing his efforts and, when he learns she is also obsessed with editing, even takes her on as his partner/producer.

When Denise urges him to provide her with more raw footage, Georges’ film sequences become increasingly violent, but the ensuing carnage is as throwaway as the rest of what’s going on here, played pretty much for laughs – and the problem is that I feel distanced from what’s happening on the screen and I don’t really care about any of the two-dimensional characters.

Still, at one hour and seventeen minutes, Deerskin is slight enough to chug along to its underwhelming conclusion without losing too much steam. But with all those awards under its belt, I can’t help wondering if this isn’t a case of The Emperor’s New Fringed Jacket.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Black Widow



After the apocalyptic smorgasbord of the Avengers trilogy, Marvel Studios seem to be struggling to find their proper niche in the cinema.

Black Widow has been a conspicuous victim of the lockdown, its release delayed by almost two years. Finally, here it is, gamely attempting to make its presence felt under the restrictions of a 12A certificate, where the excessive violence feels somehow at odds with what the filmmakers are actually allowed to show. This seems an ill-advised move. Cartoon violence is one thing, but Black Widow appears to have all the smashing, bashing and limb-breaking of a more realistic depiction without any of the consequences. Director Cate Shortland has to employ a lot of shakey-cam, so we don’t linger on injury detail. Protagonists emerge from bruising combat with a discreet smear of blood at the corner of the mouth. It’s unconvincing to say the least.

Maybe a 15 certificate would have been a better option?

The film is, by necessity, a prequel. It begins in 1995 in Ohio, where Russian super-soldier Alexie Shostakov (David Harbour) and his ‘wife,’ Melina (Rachel Weisz), are posing as a happy family, with their two ‘daughters,’ Natasha and Yelena in tow. But when evil forces close in on them, they are forced into running for their lives. Yelena winds up being a ‘widow,’ a genetically engineered soldier, for the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), while Natasha defects to the West. She grows up to be an Avenger and, of course, in time, Scarlett Johansson.

In 2016, Natasha finds herself on the run once again, this time from her American employers, and it isn’t long before she reconnects with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh). After first attempting to beat the crap out of each other – as you do – they team up and go in search of their ‘parents.’ Alexie’s in a penitentiary and first needs to be sprung, while Melina is hard at work in a remote outpost teaching pigs to stop breathing (that’s not a misprint BTW). Subsequently, the family decide to team up in order to take down Dreykov and what has now become a massive army of widows, all of them turned into mindless servants by the liberal application of er… pheromones.

Much bloodless punching and kicking dutifully ensues – at times, this feels decidedly like Marvel’s take on the Jason Bourne movies, only with added Spandex – before everything culminates in one of those big action set-pieces which takes place aboard Draykov’s sky-station.

The screenwriters make a valiant effort to establish a feminist statement amongst all this Sturm und Drang, but the effect is horribly overdone, the proverbial sledgehammer/nut scenario played out at maximum volume with minimal coherence. While we should definitely be pleased that a mainstream superhero franchise is finally trying to get in step with female empowerment, it needs to be done in a less ham-fisted manner than this. Once again, here’s a clear case of what is essentially an animated comic strip getting ideas above its station.

Johansson and Pugh are both good in their roles – indeed the film’s best moments are rooted in their bickering, competitive sisterhood – while Harbour is assigned the role of comic relief, a blundering Russian oaf addicted to shots of vodka. Overweight and out of practice, he can still put up a decent fight when he needs to. Weisz seems criminally short-changed in her thankless role as mother/scientist/all-round ass-kicker.

Marvel aficionados will know to hang around for the inevitable post-credits sequence, but I feel so underwhelmed by Black Widow, I really can’t be bothered to wait. Another helping? No thanks, I’ll pass.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Another Round


Cameo Cinema

Alcohol. It’s a curse, right? So many people depend upon it, so many have their lives completely destroyed by it – and yet it still gets bought by the gallon on a daily basis…

It would have been so easy for Thomas Vinterberg to produce a dour, finger-wagging condemnation of his chosen subject, but happily, Another Round is much more nuanced that that. This is a film that also highlights the powerful allure of alcohol, a film that makes you understand why so many of us can’t help but dance to its tune. Furthermore, it’s a story about male friendship that manages to avoid the usual clichés to deliver something genuinely heartfelt and realistic.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is a history teacher at a Danish high school. He’s been in his job for years, he’s happily married to Anika (Maria Bonnevie) and he has two teenage sons. But somewhere along the way he’s lost his drive and now finds himself teaching on auto pilot, making evident mistakes as his students look on in dismay. His sons seem to be hardly aware of him and Anika, a nurse, is permanently on the night shift. In short, he’s looking for something to inspire him.

On a night out with fellow teachers, PE instructor,Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), chemistry teacher, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and music teacher, Peter (Lars Ranthe), Martin picks up on something that Nikolaj mentions over a boozy dinner – a theory put forward by psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, namely that maintaining a constant blood alcohol level of 0.05% will make a person more relaxed and creative.

Martin decides to put it to the test, only to find that it actually appears to work. His pupils are reinvigorated by the ‘new’ Martin. In class he’s assured, slick, entertaining, and, as his alcohol level rises, so does his students’ enthusiasm for his teaching. It isn’t long before his three friends want to get in on the act, with sometimes hilarious – but ultimately tragic – consequences.

Another Round steadfastly refuses to be maudlin, ensuring that many of the alcohol-fuelled antics are positive ones and pointing out that the consequences of being drunk vary from person to person. Indeed, a climactic scene where Martin – a jazz ballet dancer in his teens – is inspired to strut his moves again, once he’s suitably fuelled with champagne, is a joyful, exuberant celebration of being ‘under the influence.’

Little wonder that, after viewing this intoxicating film, we headed straight for the bar to discuss it in an appropriate setting…

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Violet Evergarden


Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

First, a positive: Violet Evergarden is beautifully animated. The artwork is glorious, each frame a delight. The landscapes are remarkably rendered: the countryside lush and verdant, the rain almost palpable. The setting is a peculiar mash-up: the costumes are sort of Victorian; the locations are vaguely European; the Eiffel Tower looms improbably over a pretty, coastal town. The effect is dreamy and ethereal; we are somewhere, nowhere, anywhere. It’s the past (because telephones are new-fangled, a threat to Violet’s job), but it doesn’t matter when. This is all about human nature, and there are close-ups a-plenty to showcase the intensity of the characters’ emotions: clenched fists, tear-filled eyes and shifting feet.

Second, a caveat: Taichi Ishidate’s film is based on a prize-winning illustrated novel by Kana Akatsuki and Akiko Takase, which has already spawned an acclaimed TV series, also by Kyoto Animation. I have neither read the book nor seen the programme. For those who have, Violet Evergarden: The Movie might well be a welcome addition to the pantheon. However, as a stand-alone, it doesn’t work.

It’s such a shame. I want to like this film. I’m so excited to be back in my favourite cinema, watching on the big screen, but the artwork deserves a better story than this. The script (by Reiko Yoshida) is an incoherent mess. An Auto Memory Doll would have done a better job.

That’s what Violet is – an Auto Memory Doll. We’re introduced to this idea by virtue of a convoluted sub-plot that is never resolved. Daisy’s grandmother has just died and, after the funeral, Daisy (Sumire Morohoshi) takes a brief break from castigating her mum (but not her dad) for being busy at work, and finds a series of letters sent posthumously from her great-grandmother to her daughter. They’ve been written, she learns, by an Auto Memory Doll, or ghost writer. Still, despite a long, expositional scene all about Daisy’s emotional connection to her family, we don’t need to worry about her. She barely features again.

Instead, we pick up the story of a famous Doll, the eponymous Violet (Yui Ishikawa). Her backstory is detailed at breakneck speed, so I can barely keep up. There’s a war. She’s orphaned (I think); she meets a naval officer, Dietfried (Hidenobu Kiuchi), who then gives her to his soldier brother, Gilbert (Daisuke Namikawa), who’s supposed to train her to become a weapon. Instead he teaches her to read and write. There’s a bomb. She loses her arms. Gilbert feels bad. She gets prosthetic arms and becomes a writer. Her writing is exquisite. Everyone wants her to write for them, including a famous playwright! She’s a whizz at expressing others’ emotions. But she can’t say ‘I love you’ in her own right. Yup, it really is that trite.

From thereon-in, it’s all soaring strings and melodrama. It’s clearly meant to be profound, but I feel like I’m looking for depth in a pebbly puddle. Violet comes across as such a drip, it’s hard to believe she ever fought in a war. She’s vapid and weepy and painfully submissive. The endless subplots (the dying child, the random playwright who cries for reasons never explained) are muddled and dull. Even her writing is hack: the letters she writes for Yurith’s family would have been better left to the viewers’ imagination, because the banality of the messages belies the story’s entire premise.

In short, this is a film for those already enamoured of the tale. For the uninitiated, it’s a ponderous bore. I spend the last hour just waiting for it to be over.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield

The Dumb Waiter


Old Vic: In Camera

Some questions are no-brainers. Would I like to see The Old Vic’s production of The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter? Well, as I consider it to be among the finest one-act plays in history, the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Am I able to be part of the socially-distanced audience for one of its live performances? Well, no, that’s awkward. It’s a long way from Edinburgh to London – but luckily, for a small fee, I can choose to watch it online as it is transmitted live, so it’ll be the next best thing to actually being there.

And who are the chosen performers for this production? David Thewlis as Ben and Daniel Mays as Gus. When I think about it, I can’t come up with two more appropriate actors for those roles. Thewlis promises to be a perfect fit for the snappy, irritable Ben, while Mays, with his perpetual hangdog look, is just right for his hapless subordinate, Gus.

The tickets are duly booked and a reminder is popped into the diary. All good.

The Dumb Waiter first arrived on the London stage in 1960 and, in many ways, it’s the play that first cemented Harold Pinter’s reputation. It’s the tale of two hit-men, sequestered in a grubby room, waiting to kill whoever walks through the doorway. The room is pretty featureless apart from the titular dumb waiter, and the men’s rambling conversation is punctuated by a series of seemingly meaningless instructions that are delivered within it.

Of course this antiquated piece of machinery is a metaphor for something – and the beauty of the play is that a viewer’s interpretation of what it might actually represent can be wide-ranging and inventive. Across the years, I’ve seen this performed in various venues and, back in the dim and distant past, have even been part of a youth theatre production of it. The play has been a huge influence on so many other productions – Martin McDonagh’s wonderful film In Bruges, for instance, clearly owes it a considerable debt.

So, the play begins at the appointed time, and yes, Thewlis and Mays are every bit as good as anticipated. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I know the script so well I could probably be working as a prompt – so there was never any chance of surprising me here, since director Jeremy Herrin has opted to play it straight, sticking to the original staging. What’s missing, of course, is the subtle electricity that’s generated by being present at the actual event, the indefinable frisson of watching the play unfold right in front of my gaze without the inevitable distancing that ensues whenever a play is turned into a movie.

In short, I’m still longing to return to the theatre for real. Until that time, The Dumb Waiter is a fine way to pass an hour and I urge you to watch it while you still have the chance. You’ll find the link here:

4 stars

Philip Caveney



Cineworld, Edinburgh

Ah, timing. It’s unfortunate for Supernova that its release comes so hot on the heels of the infinitely superior The Father, and that – given their overlapping subject matter – comparison is inevitable. Harry Macqueen’s film isn’t bad by any means, but it’s polite to the point of missing the point, with so much unsaid – and unshown – that it’s difficult to accept the enormity of the endpoint.

Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a novelist with early-onset dementia; Sam (Colin Firth) is his partner. As an uncertain future looms, the couple take a camper van on a road trip, revisiting significant locations from early in their relationship and calling in on Sam’s sister (Pippa Haywood), until finally they reach a guest house with an out-of tune piano, which – it seems – is all the practice Sam is going to get before he gives his first recital in an unspecified ‘long time.’

Both Tucci and Firth give the sterling performances you’d expect: they’re believable long-term lovers, with all the tics and tender bickering that signify something solid. Neither actor is showy, and that’s good; this is a sombre story, and it deserves the gravitas they bring. Dick Pope’s cinematography is rather lovely too: all long, languorous shots, highlighting the simple beauty of the British countryside.

And yet. There’s not enough here. It’s all anticipation and no substance. There are some poignant moments: the blank pages in Tusker’s notebook giving lie to the fact that he’s still writing; Sam’s realisation that their dog, Ruby, has been bought specifically to keep him company when Tusker no longer can. But we never see any devastation, either clinical or emotional. The worst we see of the encroaching Alzheimer’s is a brief moment when Tusker wanders off and doesn’t know where he is; the most misery we witness is a muted discussion about suicide. Where are the sharp edges, the corners, the spikes? Where is the anguish? Of course, this film is all about not wanting to confront those truths: Tusker wants to die before grim reality kicks in, and Sam wants to pretend it’s never going to happen at all. But we, the audience, need to feel afraid and we don’t: it’s all too glossy, too glib, too bloodless, too bland.

In all, Supernova feels like a slightly wasted opportunity. It’s almost there, but it needs unbuttoning.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield