Film

Petite Maman

24/11/21

Cineworld Edinburgh

Céline Sciamma’s last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was one of the most widely acclaimed releases of 2020, a sumptuous historical drama, which had plenty to say about the creative process and also offered a heartrending tale of forbidden love. My one regret at the time was that the restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic meant that I could only view it on the small screen.

Petite Maman really couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. Shot during lockdown and using only a handful of actors, it relates its intimate story over just seventy-two minutes and yet, in its own muted way, it’s a magical experience, with a central premise that stays with me long after the credits have rolled.

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a little girl called Nelly (Josephine Sanz) accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the old woman’s house, somewhere in the French countryside, where they will spend time clearing out her belongings. Nelly’s parents don’t seem to be getting along too well and the rediscovery of her childhood belongings seems to make her mother melancholic. Left to her own devices, Nelly goes exploring the nearby woods, where she meets a girl her own age called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Marion is building a tree house and, almost without a word exchanged between them, Nelly starts to help her with the task.

It is apparent from the word go that something very strange is happening…

And it would be criminal to outline any more of the plot. Suffice to say that what transpires is an enchanting ‘what if’ story, and that Sciamma, who also wrote the script, offers us very little in the way of exposition and even less that might serve as explanation. She has the confidence to leave it up to the viewer to put the pieces together, which, because little clues have been expertly placed, is easy to do.

The two young actors are a joy to watch, their simple adventures delightful and, somehow, their performances hardly feel like ‘acting’ at all. Cinematographer Claire Mahon captures the events in a glowing, autumnal light that makes the incredible seem entirely possible. Watching this, I’m reminded of times in my own childhood, when a walk in the woods could take me to a place where my imagination would conjure the most wonderful adventures.

Petite Maman is simply enchanting and, given it’s brisk running time – a rare accomplishment in an era that sometimes seems incapable of creating any film shorter that two hours – it blows by like a wisp of gossamer: sweet, magical and beautifully understated.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

King Richard

21/11/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

King Richard is a fascinating biopic. The more obvious story belongs to Venus and Serena – and, of course, they’re very present here – but Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film, scripted by Zach Baylin, focuses instead on their father. It’s an astute move. We already know about Venus and Serena – their prodigious talent, their trailblazing, their gracious presence on the world stage. They’re wonderful, inspirational women. But they owe a lot of their success to their father, whose single-minded determination to raise champions has made him a controversial figure.

In King Richard, we are presented with a sympathetic view of a man who has often been depicted as overbearing and manipulative. It seems fair to assume that the man we see here, played with Oscar-worthy aplomb by Will Smith, is closer to the reality than some of the stories we have read. After all, Serena, Venus and their sister Isha are all listed as executive producers, which is about as strong as endorsement gets.

Richard Williams is a man with a plan. A serious, written-down, eighty-page plan. He might have spent his youth running from the Ku Klux Klan, being beaten up and fighting against adversity, but he wants better for his girls. Just because they live in Compton, where he and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), work long shifts in badly-paid jobs (she’s a nurse; he’s a security guard) and five kids share a bedroom, that’s no reason not to pursue your dreams. Richard knows that, if he wants doors to open, he’s going to have to knock loudly, because no talent scouts are coming to the local park to see eleven-year-old Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and her little sister, Serena (Demi Singleton), as they sweep the tennis courts free of leaves and then practise, practise, practise their game.

Of course, there’s not much jeopardy here, because we know how things pan out. Richard’s persistence pays off, and his daughters’ incredible talent is allowed to shine. What makes the story work is its portrayal of the battle, of how damned hard Richard has to work. I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken to boldly approach the most prestigious coaches of the tennis world and demand their attention. The Williamses don’t ‘fit in’ to the rich, white world of tennis, with its moneyed ritual of securing a certain type of coach before entering the right competitions, climbing through the ranks in the conventional way. They’re poor; they’re working class and – most obviously – they’re Black. But as soon as Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), one of those prestigious coaches, sees them play, everything changes. Because Venus and Serena are spectacularly good.

Green manages to make tennis suitably cinematic, which is no mean achievement. I love watching the sport, but this isn’t the same as a match, and repeated shots of serves and volleys can quickly become dull. That doesn’t happen here, despite the two-hour-eighteen-minute running time. He never falls back on the most conventional device of a sports biopic – the ‘inspirational montage.’

Singleton and Sidney are perfectly cast. They nail the Williams sisters’ charming, sweet-natured but fiercely competitive spirits, and are a real delight to watch. And Smith’s Richard might well be generally sympathetic, but it feels plausible as well; he’s no hero or saint. Instead, he’s a bit of a windbag, a bit too self-important, heedless of his wife and as stubborn as a mule. But there’s no doubting his good heart, nor the sacrifices he makes to ensure that his daughters succeed without relinquishing their childhoods, that Venus and Serena not only have a better life than his, but pave the way for other Black girls to follow in their Reebok-prints.

4.1 stars

Susan SIngfield

tick, tick… Boom!

20/11/21

Netflix

Lin Manuel-Miranda is having a bit of a moment. After his breakthrough with Hamilton, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d be seeing a lot more of him, but, close on the heels of the filmed adaptation of his first theatrical endeavour, In the Heights, here’s his directorial debut. And, just over the horizon, lurks the Disney animation he’s created the music for – Encanto.

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate director for tick, tick…. Boom! Here, the second musical by the late Jonathan Larson is turned into a production that’s about as meta as you could ask for: a show about a show about the creation of another show, Larson’s debut production Superbia. This adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, was something he spent eight years of his life working on, but was destined to be seen by only a handful of people.

It’s hardly a spoiler to point out that Larson was the creator of Rent and that he died tragically of an aneurism, at the age of thirty-five, the night before its premiere. The show subsequently went on to enjoy a twelve year run on Broadway, and won countless awards.

When we first encounter Jonathan (Andrew Garfield), he’s trying to write a song for Superbia and, like any real genius, he’s suffering for his art, eking out a precarious existence in his down-at-heel flat. He’s trying to maintain a troubled relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Ship), and he’s working at a local diner earning the pennies to fuel his dreams of success. His best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), who he’s known since childhood, throws over his own long-nurtured ambition of becoming an actor and goes into the world of advertising, reaping himself a beautiful high-rise flat into the bargain. He offers Jonathan a way in to that world but Jonathan is adamant.

He will achieve his dream, whatever the cost.

Tick, tick… Boom! is all about the pain of artistic endeavour – the pursuit of success at all costs – and, inevitably, because we know what’s waiting for our hero a few years down the line, the whole enterprise seems shockingly accentuated. Brilliantly staged and easily accessible, TTB wastes no time in its setup but flings us headlong into Larson’s world. We see his story as presented by him and his fellow performers as a kind of rock-opera-workshop. The songs are accessible, the lyrics witty and relevant and Garfield is exceptional in the central role, piloting us to the dizzy heights and awful depths negotiated by any artist trying to be heard.

Those fearing that this will be unbearably ‘arty’ can relax. This is a story that covers all of the emotions from exuberant to poignant, and it would be a flinty heart indeed that doesn’t warm to a tragic tale of youthful genius that comes into flower just a moment too late. The spectre of AIDs hangs heavy over the proceedings – and, as some of Larson’s closest friends succumb to the illness, we begin to understand how Rent came to fruition.

‘Write about what you know,’ advises Larson’s elusive agent, Rosa (Judith Light). So he does – and finally finds the story that’s been eluding him for so long.

This is a delightful film, one that will strike chords with anyone who has striven to create art of any kind. Yes, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through its heart, but just look and listen. There’s joy here too.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

18/11/21

Cineworld

The original Ghostbusters movies were undemanding fun, I suppose, but I’m often astonished by the reverence with which they’re regarded, as though they are some kind of cinematic holy relics. The 2016 reboot, which featured female protagonists, may not have been wonderful, but it certainly didn’t deserve the levels of derision that were piled upon it from all quarters, with some observers complaining that their childhoods had been ‘destroyed.’ Really? At any rate, the events of that film have been brushed under the carpet and, for the purposes of this story, all has been quiet on the haunting front since the mid 1980s.

A lot of careful thought has clearly been put into Afterlife well before the cameras rolled. Directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, who helmed the first two movies), this clever reboot places teenage protagonists at the heart of the story and it makes for such a perfect fit, I find myself thinking that this would have been a much more sensible approach back in the day. After all, the Ghostbusters films were clearly aimed at young audiences in the first place and that’s where they found their success. So why not make kids the driving force behind this new iteration?

After the breakup of her marriage, Callie (Carrie Coon) finds herself in dire financial straits, unable to pay the rent on the apartment she shares with her two kids, Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, still able to pass for a fifteen-year-old at the grand old age of eighteen). Providence seems to provide an answer when Callie’s estranged grandfather dies, leaving her an old farmhouse in Summerville, Oklahoma. Soon, the three of them are attempting to settle in to the near derelict property, which is still stocked with familiar-looking equipment and, which Phoebe quickly discovers, seems to be haunted by a ghostly presence.

Phoebe enrols at the local summer school, where she encounters the affable ‘Podcast’ (Logan Kim), named because of… well, his obsession with recording podcasts. She also impresses likeable science teacher, Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), who has a proclivity for showing his classes highly inappropriate movies on VHS, while he gets on with his own singular obsession, that of studying the strange seismic activity that’s currently afflicting the area.

But of course, we all know that these are no ordinary earthquakes – and that, deep in an abandoned mine, supernatural forces are steadily gathering power…

The witty script (co-written by the director) effortlessly captures the nerdy humour of today’s teenagers and I like the fact that the film takes its time introducing the young leads before heading off into more spooktacular territory. The original films are suitably homaged (The Stay Puft Marshallow Man? Check! The Ectomobile? All present and correct!) and while there are inevitable guest appearances in the film’s final furlongs, this is never allowed to be ‘old-guys-coming-to-the-rescue-of-the-kids.’ No, Phoebe, Trevor and Podcast are running this operation, ably assisted by Sheriff’s daughter, Lucky (Celeste O’ Connor).

The film’s emotional conclusion could so easily have been mishandled but, like pretty much everything else here, it’s astutely done, managing to steer clear of mawkish pitfalls and just feeling warmly appropriate. When that familiar theme music kicks in, don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave the theatre. There’s a charming post-credit scene you won’t want to miss.

I like Ghostbusters: Afterlife a lot – in fact, at the risk of destroying a few more childhoods, I’d go so far as to say that, for my money, this might just be the best film of the franchise.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Army of Thieves

14/11/21

Netflix

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead was something of a disappointment for me – overlong, over-familiar and featuring a prominent plot hole the size of a small continent – so news that a prequel was happening failed to fill me with anticipation. True, it would centre around AotD’s most interesting character, Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and okay, the zombie elements in this film would be kept to glimpses of the carnage happening over in Las Vegas, but still… how good could it possibly be?

Well, pass me a large helping of humble pie, because Army of Thieves is surprisingly entertaining.

When we first encounter Ludwig, he’s living in Germany and making YouTube videos about safecracking (as you do). In one of them, he recounts the story of legendary locksmith, Hans Wagner, the man who created four super-safes inspired by the Ring Cycle of Norse mythology. There’s an intriguing fairytale feel to these opening scenes, which provides a strong hook for the following events, which echo those of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Ludwig’s presentations attract zero views, so when he receives a lone comment inviting him to attend a mysterious meeting, he’s intrigued enough to go along. Here, he finds himself competing in a safecracking competition – and, when he wins, it isn’t long before he’s approached by Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel). She’s an accomplished thief, who wants to enlist his expertise in her attempt to do the impossible: to break into three of Wagner’s famous strongboxes.

The fourth safe is, of course, in a casino in Vegas, surrounded by zombies…

Ludwig also meets the other members of Gwendoline’s gang. They are Korina (Ruby O. Fee), Rolph (Guz Khan) and the improbably named Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), a macho blowhard – and Gwendoline’s partner – and he doesn’t much care for the new addition to the team. But, obviously, they can’t achieve their objective without a safecracker to help them. (Mind you, if this is the ‘Army’ of the title, it’s a decidedly small one. It’s barely a platoon!) Little do they know that they are being pursued by their nemesis, Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), a hardbitten cop with a personal axe to grind.

What ensues is equal parts heist movie and romcom and, while it’s every bit as unlikely as its zombie predecessor, it has a lot more charm to play with and does at least have the sense to go for laughs. Schweighöfer (who also directs the film) is great at portraying a hapless but gifted nerd, trying to keep his head above water when he’s way out of his depth. While it’s never entirely clear exactly how he’s managing to get into those super-complicated safes, it’s fun watching his progress as events rapidly build to a fever pitch. There are effective chases and action scenes and one particular sequence – introduced with the line, ‘if this were a heist movie we’d probably show it like this’ – has a delicious sense of irony about it.

Prequels rarely live up to the film they’re introducing, but Army of Thieves bucks the trend and easily surpasses it. Sure, the bar wasn’t very high in the first place, but this is well worth catching and I think Schweighöfer has an interesting future ahead of him.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spencer

11/11/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

As a rule, I tend to avoid anything to do with the royal family. I’m opposed to the very idea of a monarchy (I’d use the word ‘republican,’ but that has different connotations these days), and am genuinely bemused by the affection people feel for the current bunch of tax-guzzlers. I’ve never seen a single episode of The Crown and I don’t care one jot where Harry and Meghan live, or if they’ve stopped performing ‘royal duties.’ I do think that Prince Andrew should be held to account for his actions – like anyone else accused of a crime – but that’s another story.

Suffice to say, I’m not drawn to this movie because it’s about Diana. Of course her death was a tragedy; that’s indisputable. Of course the monarchy made her life miserable; that seems indisputable too. But I never engaged in the national pastime of adoring her, nor in the national outpouring of grief at her demise. Hers was a distant story, about someone I didn’t know.

No, the truth is, I’m drawn to this movie because of the casting. I’m a big fan of Kristen Stewart (her performances in Certain Women, Seberg and Personal Shopper are all stellar), and the supporting roles are populated by the great and the good too: to wit, Timothy Spall as baleful equerry Major Alistar Gregory, and Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser, Maggie. The trailer is enticing; my interest is piqued.

The premise is simple: it’s Christmas. Like many a family, the royals gather to spend it together. Unlike many other families, they have a plethora of palaces to choose from, and an army of underlings to ensure everything runs smoothly (said underlings, it goes without saying, can’t enjoy the festive season with their own families). So many underlings, in fact, that it’s stultifying, and it’s easy to see why Diana feels trapped and claustrophobic. Even her tiniest transgressions are noted, reported and duly addressed; the traditions are set in stone, and she has no option but to conform.

Although this film is fiction, truth shines through it: the stifling atmosphere is almost palpable. Director Pablo Larrain depicts an inflexible institution; Diana is expected to mask her mental health problems – not just from the outside world, but also from her family, in the home that is so blatantly not hers. Her inability to do this is seen as wilful, as if depression and bulimia can just be wished away. This is a family so out of touch it’s painful. (Obliging a woman with an eating disorder to undergo a humiliating ceremonial weighing to ensure she’s eaten enough Christmas dinner. Really?) Maybe I do care a little bit about where Harry and Meghan live. As far away from this toxic environment as possible, I hope.

Stewart is luminous in this role. She brings Diana to life in a credible, relatable way. She’s fragile, but there’s a strong core: a survival instinct that compels her to rebel. Jonny Greenwood’s score is wonderful: the discordant piano adding to the sense of confinement. In contrast, the final, glorious rendition of All I Need is a Miracle is a breath of fresh air in an open-top car, away from the suffocating velvet curtains, stitched shut.

The people’s princess isn’t sanctified here – we see the carelessness her privilege affords her (wrecking the feast the kitchen staff have prepared for the next day; refusing carefully prepared treats from those who care for her; recalling staff from their holidays; asking the police to lie for her), but she is humanised. She’s presented as essentially sweet-natured, but flawed, as are we all. There’s a montage of memories that takes us from a little girl practising ballet, by way of a nervous bride to a woman running for her life. It’s devastating. I find myself on the edge of my seat, rooting for her, willing her to escape that gilded cage.

And, for a few short years, she did.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Passing

10/11/21

Netflix

Passing marks the directorial debut of actor, Rebecca Hall (she also wrote the script), and it’s a project that’s been in gestation for more than a decade, inspired by her first reading of Nella Larsen’s source novel. Hall, it turns out, has some experience of the subject matter. Her own grandfather, a light-skinned African-American, often passed himself of as white back in his youth and so, to Hall, the book consequently felt like his story. Set in the 1920s and evocatively filmed by Eduard Grau in (appropriately enough) black and white, Passing unfolds its story at a sedate pace. For once, I don’t find myself grumbling about having to watch this on a small screen, because the film is intimate and compelling enough to hold my attention throughout.

Rene (Tessa Thompson) is a well-to-do Black woman, the wife of successful doctor, Brian (André Holland). Rene occasionally passes herself of as white in order to gain access to the ritzy New York hotels and restaurants she likes to frequent, and that’s what she’s doing when we first encounter her. Sitting in a swish dining room, she is astonished to be greeted by a white woman as though she’s an old friend. Except this isn’t a white woman: it’s her old school chum, Clare (Ruth Negga), who she hasn’t seen in years and who has taken the art of ‘passing’ to the extreme. With her elaborately coiffed blonde hair and carefully rehearsed mannerisms, Clare has erased all traces of her former self. What’s more, she is now married to successful white businessman, John (Alexander Skarsård), who – it turns out – is a bluntly spoken racist, and has no idea about Clare’s origins.

Understandably horrified, Rene excuses herself and tries to forget the encounter, but soon learns that Clare is not a character who’s ready to be conveniently brushed under the carpet. It’s not long before she turns up at Rene’s house and begins to inveigle her way into her former friend’s life, charming Rene’s husband, her two boys, her maid and just about everyone else she is introduced to. Only Rene’s writer-friend, Hugh (Bill Camp), seems to see through her meticulously rehearsed charm-school routines. But then, as a novelist, he’s well attuned to the concept of spinning stories.

As Clare exerts her hold over Rene’s world, so Rene begins to perceive an unspoken threat that lies behind her old friend’s vacuous smile…

This is an accomplished film is so many ways. I love the ambiguity of it. Seen entirely from Rene’s point of view, we’re never entirely sure if Clare really is the threat she appears. Could it be that she has been acting a part for so long, she’s no longer conscious of how avariciously she presents herself? She clearly hankers after the kind of life her deception has denied her – but how far would she be willing to go to reclaim it? Are Rene’s fears merely a product of her mounting paranoia?

Nothing here seems set in stone; indeed, even the film’s tragic conclusion leaves us with many unanswered questions.

Thompson is terrific as the troubled Rene, and Negga wonderfully enigmatic as Clare. The era is convincingly evoked and it’s so refreshing to see a cinematic story about the pervasiveness of racism, even for those Black people not living in grinding poverty. My only issue with the film is the overuse of a jazz-inflected piano motif, which, though appropriate for the 1920s, becomes an irritating ear worm by the time I’ve heard it for the fifteenth time. It’s a minor quibble.

Passing is a fascinating story, effectively told and what’s more, as a debut feature, it’s no mean achievement.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Harder They Fall

03/11/21

Netflix

It’s a shameful fact that many of the cinema’s most revered westerns feature less than a handful of black characters – even though history informs us that up to a quarter of the citizens forging new lives in the Old West were people of colour. So it would seem a propitious time for a cowboy film where black characters are centre stage and their white counterparts relegated to supporting roles. Directed – and co-written – by Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall sets out to be a revisionist piece and to some degree it hits its targets. What a shame, then, that the main protagonists in this story are, almost without exception, a bunch of callous murderers, ready to obliterate anyone who stands in their way.

Who then are we supposed to identify with?

Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is looking for vengeance against the man who killed his parents when he was a child and who carved a cross on his forehead with the tip of a knife. The charmer in question is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), recently freed from prison and now seeking to recoup the $25,000 that Love’s gang took from him – money that his own followers have recently stolen from a train. But… his gang stole it first, right? So obviously it belongs to him!

Love, meanwhile, returns to his old stamping ground to reconnect with former lover, Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), whom he hopes to marry one day, but first there’s the little matter of taking his revenge on Buck, who has returned to the all-black town of Redwood and removed the man he left in charge by pistol-whipping him and taking his place. It’s clear from the outset that Buck doesn’t plan to be a benevolent ruler, shooting a man in cold blood for having the temerity to question him about the steep taxes he’s planning to enforce. Buck is backed up by the equally malevolent Trudy Smith (Regina King) and fast draw merchant, Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). As the two rival gangs square up to each other for a showdown, it can only end in bloodshed.

There are some elements in The Harder They Fall that I really like. The widescreen cinematography is gorgeous and the recreations of frontier towns are quite different from anything I’ve seen before. Furthermore, the decision to use contemporary reggae and township music as a soundtrack is an inspired move, lending a sense of urgency to the action. There’s also an expertly-handled climactic shoot out. All points in the film’s favour.

But every story needs characters that an audience is willing to root for and there’s a sad dearth of them here. Even US Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) seems to have no qualms about bending the rules when there’s money to be made. (Western scholars will doubtless recognise many of these names, because they are taken from historical characters, but there’s been no attempt to reproduce any of their actual accomplishments, which seems self-defeating.) All we learn of these people is that they’re quick on the trigger and the constant litany of shootings, beatings and stabbings becomes wearisome after a while. We’re probably supposed to identify with Nat Love, but the truth is, he’s not really all that different from his nemesis, Rufus Buck. He just shoots people with a smile on his face, while Rufus scowls.

So, while I agree this is an important release that’s come at exactly the right time, I just wish I cared more about the people who are being shot and bludgeoned to death right in front of me.

As it stands, this feels like a squandered opportunity. And that’s a real shame. Samuel is clearly a skilled filmmaker but he needs a stronger script to make this fly.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Antlers

01/11/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

To describe Antlers as ‘dark’ would be something of an understatement.

The tone of this powerful little eco-horror is jet black with a side order of obsidian. Directed by Scott Cooper and co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a bleak tale, an allegory that carries its twin themes – the desecration of nature and the destructive power of poverty – in plain view. The story is by no means subtle and it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – but to be fair, that’s the last thing it’s trying to be.

In an abandoned coal mine, somewhere in the wilds of Oregon, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is running a covert meth operation. His home town is broken beyond repair, the nearby mountains plundered of their ‘black gold,’ and now he’s getting by the only way he knows how. But his youngest son, Aiden (Sawyer Jones), has an unfortunate habit of sticking his nose into things – and, when Frank and an employee encounter something supernatural down in the darkness, Aiden inevitably goes to investigate.

Some time later, high school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is struggling to keep her life together. She’s failing to bond with the kids in her classes, she can’t seem to visit the local liquor store without casting yearning glances at the bottles of spirits – and she’s troubled by horrors from her childhood. She is currently living with her brother, the town sheriff, Paul (Jesse Plemons), and they share a past that they’d clearly rather forget. Perhaps that’s why Julia is so drawn to the plight of Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who sits silently at his school desk, drawing a series of very disturbing pictures. But what has happened to his father and his younger brother? And what exactly is he keeping locked up in the attic of the family home?

It would be too much of a spoiler to tell you more about the story. Suffice to say that the creature that the Weavers have unwittingly unleashed is parasitic in nature and has a habit of vacating its hosts in a very messy manner. But while the story goes to some fantastic places, the grubby reality of the setting keeps everything anchored. The squalid, dying town is a realistic place and its inhabitants are believable enough to encourage us to follow them deep into the realms of the unreal.

Those who flinch from body horror should be warned there are visceral scenes here. We all know that teachers have a tough time, but the events endured by school principal, Miss Booth (Amy Madigan), must qualify as an all time low. Cooper keeps offering tantalising glimpses of something unspeakable lurking in the shadows and his ‘less-is-more’ approach consequently ramps up the fear factor. It’s only towards the end of the film, when we finally see the creature in more detail, that the tension dissipates somewhat… but by then, the director’s work is done and we’ve well and truly been put through the mill.

Antlers is a an accomplished creature feature, that generates an atmosphere of mounting dread for most of its duration. Grim and immersive, it’s eminently suitable for spooky autumn viewing, but we warned, the central premise is not for the faint-hearted.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Last Night in Soho

30/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Some cinema releases are more anticipated than others.

I’ve been a fan of director Edgar Wright ever since Spaced – and, through the ‘Three Cornetto‘ trilogy, the odd-but-enjoyable misfire that was Scott Pilgrim, and the wildly inventive Baby Driver, he’s delivered some of the most watchable films in recent cinema history. So, as soon as Last Night in Soho was announced, I was counting the days to its release. Too much anticipation can sometimes be a problem, but not in the case of this powerful psychological thriller. Chung-hoon Chung’s dazzling cinematography, the twisty-turny script (by Wright and and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and a sparky soundtrack of solid gold 60s bangers all work together to make this a thrill ride from the opening credits onward.

After her mum’s suicide, Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) has led a sheltered life in Cornwall with her Gran, Peggy (Rita Tushingham) – though Ellie’s late mother still has an unnerving habit of watching her from mirrors. Ellie has always longed to be a fashion designer, so she heads off to the big city to take her place at the London College of Fashion. From the very start, she is uncomfortable in this unfamiliar environment, suffering the predatory advances of a cab driver, whose lascivious gaze threatens her from his rear view mirror. On arrival in her halls of residence, she is immediately alienated from her fellow students, a sneering, superior bunch who regard her as some kind of weird country bumpkin. She decides to be proactive and rents a bedsit on Goodge Place, presided over by the mysterious Ms Collins (Diana Rigg, having a great time in her final screen role). The tiny flat feels like a throwback to the 1960s but Ellie doesn’t mind. As evidenced by her dress designs and her vinyl record collection, it’s long been her favourite era.

But from her first night there she has disturbing dreams about a young woman called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring pop star and would-be 60s fashion icon, who falls under the influence of sleazy ‘manager’ Jack (Matt Smith). Jack, it transpires, sees little difference between a pop star and a prostitute. The trouble is, Ellie is increasingly involved in the resulting relationship, finding herself observing – and then sharing – the indignities that are heaped upon Sandie at every turn. As these experiences become ever more violent, ever more carnal, Ellie begins a rapid descent into darkness. The problem is, to those around her in the present day, she appears to be losing her mind…

There’s nothing particularly new about this premise, but Wright’s approach to it is refreshingly different and, for the first forty minutes or so, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. The film swoops and soars and segues through the various unearthly set pieces with consummate skill, and, while terrible things happen to Ellie, she is never allowed to be ‘the victim.’ The underlying theme is the toxicity of Soho – the disturbing underbelly that lurks beneath the bright lights. This film is simultaneously a love letter to and a condemnation of the 1960s. Both McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are exceptional in their respective roles and the presence of Terence Stamp as the ‘silver haired gentleman’ is a wonderfully threatening addition (watching Stamp singing along to Barry Ryan’s Eloise is a masterclass in understated menace). There are also some real surprises packed into the script, ones that I genuinely don’t anticipate.

So what’s wrong, I hear you ask? Well, to be fair, not much, but to my mind there are a couple of missteps. The faceless armies of male ghosts that pursue Ellie relentlessly around the city are brilliantly realised, but there’s a moment where they start to feel overused. Haven’t we watched what is essentially the same scene a couple of times already? And… I’m being picky here… there’s John (Michael Ajao), Ellie’s only real friend from college, a man so sweet-natured he could rot your teeth at thirty paces, a fellow so forgiving, he would make Ghandi seem downright surly by comparison. It’s not Ajao’s performance that’s at fault but the dreadful lines of dialogue he’s obliged to come out with, quips that feel like they’ve been drafted in from an entirely more lighthearted project and are consequently jarring.

It’s only these two elements that make Last Night in Soho fall short of a perfect five stars. Niggles aside, the film is an absolute blast and another success to add to Wright’s growing score of brilliantly inventive movies. I haven’t stopped singing Cilla Black’s You’re My World since I stepped out of the cinema and, until you’ve seen it performed on a blazing staircase with an accompanying kitchen knife, you haven’t really experienced it at all.

Go see! You won’t be disappointed.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney