Hong Chau

The Whale


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is rapidly approaching the end of his life. Since the death of his partner, Adam, he has allowed his health to decline. Inanimate, a binge eater and a housebound recluse, he now weighs in at over 600 pounds and, as his friend, Liz (Hong Chau), repeatedly tells him, if he doesn’t get himself to a hospital he will, inevitably, suffer a massive heart attack. But Charlie has no health insurance and insists on working at every opportunity, teaching English Literature online – though he pretends that the camera on his computer is broken so his students cannot see him.

But Charlie still has one burning ambition, – to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned when she was eight years old. It’s not going to be easy, because she is hostile to his approaches, blaming him for the fact that her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), is a heavy drinker and still very much a loner. Into this scenario wanders Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary, seeking to give Charlie some spiritual help – but mostly looking for his own salvation.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky with a screenplay by Samuel D Hunter (based on his stage play), The Whale was filmed during lockdown, and (very fittingly) feels trapped by its stage origins, confining itself almost completely to Charlie’s dark and claustrophobic apartment. It’s been accused by some as an exercise in fat-shaming, though this seems unfair: Charlie is an engaging and complex character, dealing with grief and addiction. Fraser wears convincing prosthetics, created by a whole team of artists, which serve to illuminate the almost cartoonish grotesquery of his size, while still making us empathise with his plight.

There’s no doubting the power of Fraser’s Oscar-nominated performance in the central role, fuelled to some degree, I think, by his own punishing experiences in the movie industry. In fact, all of the performances here are skilled, particularly Sink’s incandescent turn as an anger-fuelled teenager, determined to exact her revenge on just about everyone she encounters. The scene where Charlie has to offer to pay her to visit him is particularly tragic.

If I’m honest, I think there are better, more nuanced films in this year’s Oscar contenders, but I won’t be at all surprised if Fraser gets the nod for best actor. His performance here is exemplary, and The Whale is a powerful and affecting drama.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Menu


Cineworld, Edinburgh

This dark and malevolently funny film, directed by Mark Mylod, expertly skewers the pretensions of fine dining and the people who indulge in it. It’s an assured piece of work, but, as somebody who enjoys the occasional bit of haute cuisine, I take its final assertion – that the only food worth getting worked up about is cheeseburger and fries – with a large pinch of smoked paprika.

Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is a lover of good cooking, sycophantically devoted to the work of culinary genius, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), about whom he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. When we first encounter Tyler, he’s waiting impatiently at a quayside with his date, ‘Margot’ (Anya Taylor-Joy), for the boat that will take the two of them over to Slowik’s private island. Once there, along with a group of other specially invited guests, the couple will experience the great man’s latest menu. Their dinner companions include a couple of influential food critics, a trio of investors, a B-list movie star and even Slowik’s mother, who appears to be hopelessly drunk as the guests take their seats.

Slowik’s devoted staff hurry obey his every word, while his second in command, Elsa (Hong Chau), wanders around the restaurant politely insulting the diners to their faces.

The ensuing events are presented as a series of courses, complete with onscreen descriptions and, as the time slips by, Slowik’s offerings become ever more absurd. (I particularly love the course that consists of a selection of accompaniments for bread that neglects to include any actual bread, no matter how vociferously the diners demand it.) But soon violence and bloodshed become major ingredients and the diners are fast losing their appetite. It’s clear that this is going to be Slowik’s swan song, a rebuke to a way of life that he has increasingly come to despise – and that it’s going to take considerable ingenuity to survive the final course.

An inventive satire packed with scenes of cruelty and humiliation, The Menu seems to take great delight in settling scores. There are some clever plot twists here – though not everything stands up to close scrutiny – and Fiennes excels as a man who has let his own burgeoning success push him to the very edge of sanity. Taylor-Joy is terrific too, as the only character in the film prepared to tell Slowik exactly what she thinks of his food.

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I thought The Menu was delicious. Bon appetit!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2018




2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.


Downsizing 2

Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.



A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water


Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird


This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya


Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place


This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner


Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals


Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale


Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.



Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’



Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield



Downsizing is a high-concept film, its ‘what if’ premise explored with such fastidiousness that the undoubtedly outlandish seems utterly believable. We’re in the near future, and Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), has devised a means of shrinking organic matter (plants, animals, people). He envisages his discovery as a force for good, a way to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, and to make space for the earth’s growing population. His prototype ‘tiny community’ is a success, and soon there is a growing demand for the safety and relative wealth downsizing seems to offer.

Eight years into the experiment, everyfolk Paul and Audrey Sefranik (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are seduced by the idea. They’re tired and disappointed by the life they’re living: they’re not poor, but they’ve nothing extra; they’re exhausted and unfulfilled by their work (as an occupational therapist and a shoe-shop assistant respectively); their house is fine, but it’s a long way from the ideal homes that are peddled as the answer to their dreams. When their old friends, Dave and Carol (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), tell them about their new life in American tiny community, Leisureland, it proves hard to resist the lure of a world where their $160,000 assets will translate into $12,000,000 in real terms. They can have the mansion, the country club membership, the social life, the freedom. They can escape the mundanity of their existence and live the fantasy lifestyle of the super-rich. Of course their heads are turned.

But (spoiler alert!), their plans are thwarted when Audrey realises that she can’t go through with the irreversible procedure; she doesn’t want to leave her friends and family behind. But it’s too late for Paul, who’s already been shrunk, and – after the inevitable divorce – he finds himself adrift in Leisureland, poorer than ever and working in a call centre. Because, of course, Leisureland is a miniature version of the society in which it was conceived, with all the same inequities. It’s America in microcosm, and it needs an underclass to serve its rich.

And this, for me, is where the film really shows its chops. Because it’s not just a silly fantasy about tiny people – Mrs Pepperpot or The Borrowers for a grown-up audience. It’s a meticulously realised abstraction, with all implications scrupulously examined. We learn, for example, of dictators shrinking political dissidents, of prisoners shrunk against their will. We learn of tiny refugees, using the miniaturisation process to aid their illegal passage into other countries; of full-sized tax payers angry that the small people contribute less yet still get a vote; of entrepreneurs who seek to exploit, to become rich off the back of this noble experiment. It pulls no punches, lets no one off the hook, and yet it’s still marvellously entertaining – funny even – and a real delight to watch.

There’s been some criticism of the supposed ‘white saviour’ narrative, and the suggestion that Vietnamese character Ngoc  Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is a racist stereotype. But I really don’t see these things. Sure, Paul Safronik attempts to ‘save’ Ngoc, who is an amputee; he’s keen to reassert his sense of self by helping to improve her prosthetic foot. But she rejects his help, and – when she finally capitulates – he completely fails. She might seem like a victim (a political activist, shrunk by her government, the sole survivor of an illegal  immigration, her leg lost in the process, working as a cleaner for the rich people in Leisureland), but she’s not: she operates entirely on her own terms. She owns the cleaning business, we realise; she employs Paul, puts him to work; it’s she who rescues him, in fact. And I don’t know how she’s a stereotype, unless it’s her accent, which Hong Chau says she copied from people she knew as a child (“I grew up around Vietnamese refugees, around people who don’t speak English as a first language”). Any which way, it’s hard to see how a film where the female lead is Asian, disabled, strong and independent, can be considered retrograde.

In short (sorry), this is a fascinating piece of cinema, one that – I’m sure – will bear repeated watching. I find myself utterly captivated by it, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes a film that makes them think.

5 stars

Susan Singfield