Film

The Swimmers

04/12/22

Netflix

Some reviewers have dismissed The Swimmers as ‘a feelgood movie’, but that, I feel, is doing it an immense disservice. While it’s based on the true story of Syrian sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini, Sally El Hossaini’s film – which she co-wrote with Jack Thorne – takes its viewers through some pretty distressing experiences before we finally experience any sense of uplift.

We first encounter the two girls in their home city of Damascus, where they are enjoying the exuberant nightlife and, by day, are training hard with their father, a swimming coach, whose greatest dream is to see his two daughters representing their country in the next Olympics. But the year is 2012 and a war is inexorably approaching. When next we see the family, it’s 2015, they are experiencing a far less privileged lifestyle and are swiftly coming to the conclusion that there is no hope of ever achieving happiness in Syria. So together with their young cousin, Nizar, (Ahmed Malek), Yusra (Nathalie Issa) and Sara (Manal Issa) take a flight to Turkey and subsequently set off on a hazardous journey, hoping to make it to Hanover, where they have a friend who they know will take them in.

But for Yusra, those long-cherished dreams of being an Olympic swimmer have never faded away…

We’ve all heard of the perils suffered by refugees attempting to escape war-torn countries, but The Swimmers makes them feel horribly palpable A terrifying journey across the sea to Lesbos in an old inflatable boat is only the first in a whole series of nail-biting disasters that ensue. And it seems that wherever the sisters and their companions travel, there are ruthless people who are more happy to make a swift buck from their desperate situation. Is there anybody they can trust? And even when they finally reach their destination, there are more torments they’ll need to endure before they can have any sense of belonging in their chosen home. There’s a genuine sense of the scale of the issues, too. A scene where a group of refugees wander across a Greek beach that is literally littered with thousands of discarded lifejackets is – quite literally – breathtaking.

Real life sisters, the Issas offer delightful portrayals of the central characters and there’s an appealing performance from Matthias Schweighöff as Sven, the swimming coach who accepts Yusra as a member of his swimming team, and helps her to pursue her ambitions all the way to the 2020 Olympics in Rio. For a little while, the ‘feel good’ tag feels well-earned.

But this being a true story, grim reality soon intervenes. A post-credit message informs us what has really happened to Sara since 2020, and the smile fades from my face. The Swimmers is a brilliantly told tale of human endurance that’s also extremely informative, and the Mardini sisters’ incredible journey keeps me hooked throughout.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Bones and All

31/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

She Said

29/11/22

Cineworld. Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

#MeToo.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Aftersun

24/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Tim Minchin: BACK

23/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Thirteen Lives

20/11/22

Amazon Prime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Wonder

19/11/22

Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

Philip Caveney

Watcher

16/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Living

09/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Scripted by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Oliver Hermanus, Living is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated film, Ikiru – the story of a man coming to the end of his life and desperately trying to right the wrongs of his wasted opportunities. Set in the same era as the original, the story is cleverly relocated to a city hall somewhere in London, where a battalion of bowler-hatted wage slaves put reams of printed paper into order. The office is presided over by Mr Williams (Bill Nighy) a man so grievously incapable of meaningful conversation, that the office’s sole female occupant, Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), has secretly dubbed him ‘Mr Zombie.’

But when his doctor informs him that, courtesy of stomach cancer, he has only a few months left to live, Williams finds he is totally incapable of talking about it to his son and daughter-in-law, preferring instead to unload on a random stranger he meets in a cafe, louche ‘artist’, Sutherland (Tom Burke). Sutherland listens in bewilderment as Williams tells him that he’s never properly lived his life and his solution is to take Williams out on the lash, visiting a series of seedy bars and strip clubs. This offers Williams some momentary respite from his torture, but no real answers.

Next, he has a chance encounter with Miss Harris, and ultimately takes her into his confidence. These scenes could easily be creepy, but it’s clear that Williams is inspired not by lust, but by the young woman’s youth: her ability to take pleasure in the smallest things – like the knickerbocker glory she gleefully chooses when the two of them have lunch at Fortnum’s. It’s these scenes that are the film’s strongest suit and one lengthy monologue from Williams, as he recalls happier times, actually has me filling up with tears.

Ultimately, Living is all about the inability of people to communicate with each other and the point is eloquently made, but – given the film’s length and the fact that it moves with all the urgency of glacial erosion – it sometimes feels as though it makes it several times over. Williams’ elevation to a kind of sainthood, as his final moments are recalled by a passing police constable (Thomas Coombes), come dangerously close to mawkishness. Furthermore, there’s a part of me that feels there’s a kind of cheating going on here. Williams’ progressing illness is conveyed with little more than the occasional grimace and a discreet spot of blood on a handkerchief. Otherwise, he remains as perfectly attired and implacable as ever. None of the horrors of his cancer are ever shown and we all know, don’t we, that real life is never as convenient as that?

Still, there’s plenty to admire here. Nighy was doubtless put on this earth to play the role of Williams, his chiselled, impassive features somehow managing to convey the torment that lies beneath that calm exterior – and Wood is simply adorable as the ingenue who breezes briefly through the fusty atmosphere of the office, before moving on to better things. Kudos should also go to the sound department, for the lustrous music that underpins the films key moments, accentuating the poignancy and regret of the central premise. The era is convincingly evoked, right down to the opening and closing credits and Sandy Powell’s meticulous costume design is, as ever, spot on.

A final thought. I wonder if this – like the film that inspired it – would have looked even more sumptuous in black and white?

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney

Barbarian

08/11/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

There’s been a lot of hush-hushery from the makers of Barbarian, of the ‘don’t give away the ending’ variety. I can totally understand why. Writer/director Zach Creggar has put together a low-budget horror tale that seems to delight in pulling the rug from under the viewer at regular intervals. No sooner am I thinking, ‘Ah, I know what’s happening here,’ than I am obliged to indulge in a major rethink, until – eventually – I’m in the ‘what the hell is happening here?’ camp.

I rather like being in this position and, in the end, I find I’m awarding points for Creggar’s chutzpah, as he gleefully galumphs into uncharted territory. Put it this way: if you can work out where it’s all going, you’re way ahead of me.

Tess (Georgina Campbell) is travelling to an Airbnb in a run-down neighbourhood of Detroit, ignoring regular calls from someone who we presume is her troublesome ex. She arrives in the dead of night, exhausted, only to find that the place is already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgärd), who seems thoroughly nice and agreeable. But is he? When Tess discovers that every hotel in Detroit is fully booked because of a convention, she reluctantly accepts Keith’s invitation to take the bed while he sleeps on the sofa, but she’s understandably apprehensive when he offers her a glass of wine.

The atmosphere is already freighted with anxiety and, when Tess wakes up in the night to find that her previously locked bedroom door is open, it’s clear that darker things are coming. These include: the unexpected arrival of the Airbnb’s owner, toxic male film director, A J (Justin Long); flashbacks to the antics of a very disturbing fellow called Frank (Richard Brake); and then there’s… no, sorry, I can’t really tell you about that. You probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Campbell and Skarsgärd are both terrific, and Long is convincing as the odious AJ. But Barbarian goes to some pretty horrible places. As the title suggests, there are various barbaric situations for viewers to get through and those who draw the line at seeing a man beaten to death with his own arm might prefer to give this one a miss. Like many films in the horror genre, it’s only in the closing stages that some of what’s happening onscreen begins to stretch credulity. (I was always told that all falling objects descend at the same speed – but apparently not.)

However, it’s been a while since a horror film has surprised me in such a positive way, and in that spirit, I’m happy to commend this film as a right riveting watch.

Just make sure you double-lock your bedroom door when you get home afterwards. It’s best to be on the safe side.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney