Film

A Ghost Story

14/08/17

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, you’ll already have heard about this film. It’s the one where Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck spends most of his time hidden under a bed-sheet – the one where Rooney Mara has to eat an entire chocolate pie in one take, even though she’s never actually eaten pie before… Seldom has so much information been spread in advance of a film’s release. And then there’s that killer trailer, which really raised my expectations for this.

So, is the actual film any good? Well, the answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might hope.

This is the story of handsome young couple, C (Casey Affleck), and M (Rooney Mara), living together in a modest clapboard house, somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. When C is killed in a car crash  – don’t worry, this really isn’t a spoiler – he somehow finds himself rising up from his death bed, cloaked in his funeral shroud. He returns to his house, where he watches in silence as M goes through a lengthy grieving process before finally moving on with her life and leaving for pastures new. C is doomed to remain tied to the house, waiting for something – we’re not sure exactly what – to happen and, as we eventually witness, he is destined to be there for eternity, even able to somehow loop back around to revisit the past.

The film unfolds at such a funereal pace, it makes a Terence Malick film seem like Fast and Furious by comparison. Indeed, at times it’s less like a motion picture and more like watching a series of still images in an art gallery. Obviously, this is no accident on the part of writer/director David Lowery, who clearly wants you to meditate deeply on the subjects of bereavement, mourning and the passing of time, but I’d be lying if I claimed that the film doesn’t sometimes test my patience to the extreme. Which is not to say that there aren’t some brilliant ideas in here. There are, but they take an inordinate amount of time to reveal themselves. The conviction remains that this could have been a brilliant short but, even at an economical 92 minutes, it drags its heels more than you’d like.

Weirdly, the images do tend to stay with you long after the closing credits, but this doesn’t feel like enough to recommend it to others. It feels to me that there’s the ghost of a very good movie in there somewhere, but it’s too tightly wrapped in its funeral shroud to ever claw its way out. Definitely a marmite film, this, and I’m already bracing myself to hear from those who will inevitably jump to its defence. But I was left wanting more. And that makes A Ghost Story a major disappointment.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

England is Mine

10/08/17

England is Mine, the Morrissey biopic, is a bit of a let-down – much like the man himself. And, believe me, this is not a sentiment I’m happy to express. I loved Moz as a teenager and young adult; I still love the Moz I carry in my heart. It’s just hard to reconcile the boy he was with the immigration-hating Farage-fan he has become in later life. I hoped the film might redeem him – and it does, to some extent – but it’s a weak, diluted story, that leaves out all of the interesting bits.

There is stuff to admire: Jack Lowden is ace in the lead role, convincingly conflicted, straddling that odd line between shyness and arrogance. The first forty minutes or so are very good indeed, conveying a real sense of the stultification Steven Patrick felt, trapped in a world where no one saw more for him than the same as they had, all repetitive jobs and dull relationships. Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a lone bright star, opening up the world to him. And Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) offers another ray of hope, another route out of this Billy Liar life: these two characters are particularly well-acted, their larger-than-life personae portrayed with impressive subtlety.

There are lots of enjoyable little references to Smiths lyrics too: we see young Moz standing ‘under the iron bridge,’ walking through ‘a darkened underpass,’ staring at ‘the rocks below.’ He and Linder enjoy their afternoons at the cemetery, claiming words as their own, or producing the texts from whence they were ripped. There is fun to be had in spotting these.

But, honestly, it’s not enough. Where’s the music? I’m assuming efforts were made to secure the rights to at least some of the Smiths’ output? Or did writer/director Mark Gill really want to make a biopic that misses out the legacy of its main man? Okay, okay, the story ends before the Smiths begin, but surely the closing credits could have incorporated something relevant? Instead, the music throughout fails to set the scene: it’s all the stuff that Moz enjoyed, but there’s no context for it, nothing to show how wonderfully out of step he was. There’s a poster for Duran Duran at the end, which goes a little way towards establishing this idea, but there’s nothing aural to consolidate it. It’s a film about music. The soundtrack really matters here.

Also, there’s half an hour where nothing happens. Almost literally nothing. Moz has lost his rubbish job; his dreams of stardom are in the dust, because Billy Duffy has left him behind. He’s depressed. He takes to his bed. On the rare occasion he gets up, he mopes. If ever there’s a perfect moment for a montage sequence, this is it. We could have whipped through this in five minutes and then moved on. Instead, we’re there with him: bored, fed-up and underwhelmed.

‘To say the least, I’m truly disappointed.’

3 stars

Susan Singfield

47 Meters Down

27/07/17

You may experience a scratching noise during screenings of this film. Don’t be alarmed, it’s only the sound of viewers drawing a line through ‘Swimming with Sharks’ on their bucket list – or quite possibly, somebody from the Mexican tourist board composing a letter of protest.

Lisa (Mandy Moore) has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, just weeks before the two of them were due to jet off for a dream holiday in Mexico. Trying to make the best of things, Lisa offers the place to her younger, more outgoing sister, Kate (Claire Holt). Kate’s method of getting Lisa over this obvious downer is to take her out dancing, encouraging her to snog a local hottie and then to enlist her on a ‘swimming with sharks’ experience in a rusty, leaking old tub, with a crew that take absolutely no notice of the fact that Lisa has never scuba dived before. Health and safety? Pah! This is Mexico! Who bothers with such outmoded ideas? They even practice the outlawed art of ‘chumming’ – throwing rotting fish into the water to attract the bigger sharks.

Needless to say, it works and the sisters are soon in a ramshackle metal cage, surrounded by giant fish. But, after an ancient piece of machinery fails, they promptly find themselves at the bottom of the ocean (47 meters down, obvs) with their oxygen fast running out and some (entirely convincing) CGI sharks prowling around in search of sustenance. These scenes are undeniably effective, generating almost unbearable levels of tension and making viewers feel every bit as breathless as the sisters.

Rather less seaworthy, however, are the passages where the young women discuss their relationship (as you tend to when surrounded by sharks) and the way they feel obliged to keep reminding each other of how long they have left before their oxygen runs out. Worse still is the presence of jobbing actor, Matthew Modine as Captain Taylor, (he might just as well have been called Captain Exposition). Unseen for most of the film, he’s required to keep warning the women, via a dodgy radio link, that divers who take on too much oxygen or attempt to surface too quickly, can suffer from ‘the bends’. This may cause hallucinations, he tells them, repeatedly. Just in case we’re in any doubt about some of the things that occur in later scenes.

The ending is divisive. A gentleman sitting next to us expressed his views in no uncertain terms, (“That was a load of shit!”), but I actually liked the fact that it tries for something less straightforward than is usual in movies of this genre.  Director Johannes Roberts definitely has a flair for terrorising audiences, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next. (Hopefully somewhere that comes equipped with a better scriptwriter).

While this film has some evident flaws, there’s no denying the enduring appeal of sharks vs humans. But if you’re one of those intrepid people who are planning this kind of holiday experience in the near future, I’d give this one a wide berth.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Big Sick

23/07/17

The Big Sick is a fascinating movie: a rom-com for the modern age. Despite being produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Knocked Up), the ‘com’ part of the equation is relatively subtle, avoiding (for the most part) the broad, scatalogical approach for which he is famed. Instead, this is a gentle, honest exploration of cross-cultural love and the complexities of modern relationships.

Based on the true story of writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film charts the initial stages of their romance as they negotiate the choppy waters of one-night stands, reluctantly-developing feelings and parental expectations. When a sudden, devastating illness is added to the mix, it seems as if the relationship might break under the strain.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, which adds to the sense of truthfulness. His performance is both charming and understated, with a quirky mix of confidence and modesty, which is very appealing indeed. He doesn’t self-aggrandize, but nor does he self-deprecate in that ostentatious, humble-bragging manner some comedians employ. And his account of his family is affectionate and kind, even though he’s largely shown in opposition to them. They want him to become a lawyer; they want him to be a devout Muslim; they want to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. None of these things coincides with what Kumail wants for himself: he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian; he’s not sure about his faith. But his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are not his enemies: they are his family and they love him as much as he loves them. Their marriage is happy, and so is his brother, Naveed (Adeel Ahktar)’s: they all just want the best for him. The women they introduce him to are not awful; they’re real, believable people: attractive, intelligent, with interests of their own. But Kumail has fallen for Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). And she doesn’t fit the mould because she’s a white American.

As for grad-student psychologist Emily, she’s appalled to discover that Kumail is considering an arranged marriage, and that his plans for the future don’t necessarily include her. She’s in love with him, and devastated by the realisation that he’s caught between two worlds. “I can’t be the reason you lose your family,” she tells him. It’s too big, too much.

When Emily falls ill, however, Kumail is forced to confront his feelings and make a decision. He can’t coast along trying to appease everyone forever.

It doesn’t sound very amusing when it’s summarised, but this film is as irreverently funny as it is moving. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are hilarious as Emily’s bickering parents, and Kher and Shroff’s disapproving double act is also excellent. The scenes backstage in the comedy club are illuminating, and benefit from a convincing shot of authenticity – after all, this is a world that seasoned stand-up Nanjiani knows well.

Really, this is a delightful film, with such a lot going for it. But don’t go along expecting a gross-out comedy. This is something way more interesting.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Whist

22/07/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a rainy morning in Edinburgh, the perfect time to seek escape from reality. Upstairs in the bar at the Festival theatre may seem an unlikely location for such an escape, but it’s soon to be transformed into a landscape of the imagination, courtesy of dance company AOE and some nifty virtual reality headsets. Helpers are on hand to show us initially around what looks like a random selection of rather unprepossessing objects; we are told that, when these shapes are looked at through our headsets, they will unlock a series of sequences inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

So, we allow ourselves to be fitted out with said headsets and we regard the first object we come to and… wow, this actually works! All of a sudden, I am standing mid-air in the centre of a dilapidated room, a room I can see in perfect detail, whichever way I choose to look. I can’t help but notice a rather ominous wooden chest in the corner and, as I watch (rather nervously, it has to be said), a woman emerges from the box and starts to chalk obscure symbols all over the wooden floor…

It’s hard to fully describe the impact of these ‘visions’. There’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the various characters that wander in and out of the (seemingly unconnected) sequences and, often, a startling moment when they look directly at me and I become convinced that they know I am here, that they can see me watching them. The scenes range from the creepy to the baffling to the vaguely erotic. In my favourite sequence, I’m standing on a dinner table, my feet resting on a plate of bloody hearts. Around me, three diners are tucking in to the raw meat, drinking wine and shooting me challenging looks. I feel obliged to keep spinning around to make sure I take in all of their reactions. One of them looks a bit handy with a steak knife and I get the distinct impression they don’t much like me standing in the middle of their dinner…

There’s no through-storyline here. Each individual scenario is something that could have evolved from a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Birth seems to be a recurring theme and also, the subjugation of women. There’s a moment when I really want to step in to help somebody who is being manhandled, but I can’t, because I’m not actually there even though it feels like I am – and then there’s a moment when I suddenly find myself drifting alone through the cosmos and I nearly cry out with the wonder of it. I look down and it feels like I could fall forever…

The experience lasts an hour (which is probably just about the right duration) and I have to say, it’s pretty intense. For a while after it’s over, I have the conviction that the real word I’ve returned to is pretty damned strange (particularly when I spot Jarvis Cocker standing on the other side of the road) but that feeling soon passes. After all this is Edinburgh and the festival is fast approaching. Why shouldn’t Jarvis Cocker be around? Whist feels decidedly like it should be part of the festival, but it’s here right now and it’s one of the strangest, most immersive experiences I’ve ever had.

I urge everyone who can to pop along to the Festival Theatre and give it a try. It’s there until early August. There’s a limit of twenty participants per show, so get those tickets booked and dive right in. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, maybe even a little bit freaked… but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored, not for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

To the Bone

19/07/17

Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film, and might not have done had the weather been nicer, had I not already seen all Cineworld had to offer, and had I not imposed upon myself a ‘Dry July’ and thus removed the option of going to the pub. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s scathing review in The Guardian and feared it might be a misogynistic, voyeuristic old mess. But, actually, this Netflix Original well exceeded my expectations, and I think it merits a (cautiously) positive response.

To be clear, I have no personal experience of eating disorders, and am in no way dismissing Freeman’s more informed opinion. Hers is the insider’s view. But, from an outsider’s perspective, this film ain’t bad at all.

It tells the tale of Ellen (or Eli), played with frail intensity by Lily Collins (last seen as Red, an animal rights activist in Okja, looking a lot healthier than she does here). Ellen has suffered from anorexia for years; the film begins with her leaving a treatment centre, and moving in with her half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato) and stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston). It’s clearly an awkward fit: although Ellen and Kelly get on very well, Ellen finds Susan insensitive and unhelpful.  But she has little choice: her father, who ostensibly lives in the same house, is wholly absent from the film, and  her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), who has recently relocated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), is adamant that she “cannot deal” with Ellen’s problems in her life. In desperation, frightened by Ellen’s plummeting weight and left alone to cope with it, Susan makes a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, and settles on the in-patient therapy offered by unorthodox doctor, William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Actually, Dr Beckham doesn’t seem to do much at all. He talks honestly to Ellen without pulling any punches; he tells her that, if she continues as she is, it won’t be long before she dies. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what the actual treatment is. There’s an attempt to make mealtimes less stressful (the in-patients all have to sit at the dinner table, but they’re not compelled to eat), and a calm and caring atmosphere is created in the centre. Ellen makes friends there, most notably the intensely irritating Luke (Alex Sharp), whose know-it-all attitude is sickeningly patronising – although Ellen doesn’t seem to notice, so perhaps that’s just me – but still, it’s not made clear how this place and process help.

But I don’t think the film is really about that: it’s not a treatment manual. It’s more an exploration of the impact and effects of this terrible condition, both on the sufferers and on those around them. Characters that begin as almost comic caricatures (e.g. Susan) are revealed as complex and conflicted, struggling to deal with watching Ellen self-destruct. Judy’s anguish is made clear too, in a later scene, as is Ellen’s fear and her inability to stop.

Freeman condemns the film for glamourising anorexia (“it’s not all thigh gaps and eyeliner”), and there’s no denying that Collins looks beautiful most of the time. But I’m not sure that’s this film’s fault: as scarily skinny as she is in this, Collins looks exactly like a lot of film stars and fashion models; her big-eyed, sharp-jawed face is not alien at all. She’s the epitome of what we’re told is good. And maybe, just maybe, that’s an important point to make.

I don’t think this is a film that purports to have the answers. I think it’s just a story, a tragic tale of one girl’s life. Of course, that doesn’t let it off the hook. But it seems to be a tale well-told, even if there is no universal truth revealed.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield