Paul Dano

The Fabelmans


Cineworld, Edinburgh

In the wake of the pandemic, several film directors seem to be have been inspired to take a closer look at at their own roots. Already this year we’ve had Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Alejandro G Innarutu’s Bardo and James Gray’s Armageddon Time – though good luck tracking down any cinema or streaming service showing the latter.

Now comes the turn of Steven Spielberg, arguably one of our greatest living directors, who is clearly looking to settle some old ghosts with The Fabelmans. The film is preceded by a short clip featuring an avuncular-looking Spielberg, humbly thanking the audience for coming to the cinema to see his latest offering. What we are about to watch, he tells us, is his most personal film ever.

It begins in 1952, when the young Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoreyan) goes to his very first picture show along with his parents, Burt (Paul Dano), a computer programmer, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a talented pianist. Sam is initially apprehensive about the upcoming experience – he’s heard terrible things! – but is transfixed by Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, particularly an extended sequence that depicts an epic train crash. That Christmas, Sam is given a lovely toy train set and he cannot stop himself from attempting to recreate what he saw in the movie and, inevitably, capturing it on film.

Time rolls on, and a teenage Sam (Gabrielle LaBelle) is living in Arizona, where Burt has gone for work. He’s still obsessively making amateur movies, aided by his willing schoolmates (including the famous World War 2 on a budget epic Escape to Nowhere) and thinks nothing of the fact that Burt’s friend, ‘Uncle’ Bennie (Seth Rogan), is a constant presence in the family’s life. It’s only when he is editing a film about a recent family camping trip that the camera reveals something he has previously had no inkling of…

The Fabelmans is essentially a family drama, but one that encompasses some weighty topics: mental health issues, the prevalence of anti-semitism and the expectations that parents can sometimes place on their children. Above all hovers the love of cinema, the almost magical ability it has to transform a viewer’s world, to allow them to escape from reality into a variety of uncharted realms. This is a warm and affectionate study of the director’s beginnings and, if it occasionally ventures perilously close to schmaltz, Spielberg is deft enough to repeatedly it snatch back from the abyss. The world he creates here is utterly believable.

There’s plenty to enjoy. I love the brief appearance by Judd Hirsch as all-round force of nature, Uncle Boris – a former silent movie actor, who recognises the nascent director lurking inside Sam and calls him to do something about it. There’s a beautifully nuanced performance from the ever-impressive Williams as a woman who has sacrificed her own creative ambitions to the demands of her family and is suffering because of it, and there’s a delicious, foul-mouthed cameo from (of all people) David Lynch. Throw in Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography and legendary composer John Williams’ music, and you’ve got something a little bit special.

And while The Fabelmans is not quite the five-star masterpiece that so many critics have declared it to be, it’s nonetheless a fascinating look at the filmmaker’s roots and one that never loses momentum throughout its duration.

So don’t wait for streaming. See it where it belongs, and Steven will thank you in person.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Batman


Cineworld, Edinburgh

Director Matt Reeves’ modest ambition for The Batman was to make ‘the best Batman movie yet.’

Well, he hasn’t done that – but he’s certainly made the longest. Weighing in at a bum-numbing two hours and fifty minutes, it brings to mind the conviction that while ‘less’ is often ‘more’, ‘more’ usually equals ‘less’ when it comes to movies. And, while this just about scrapes four stars in its present bloated form, it would have scored much higher with some judicious editing. I mean, like, excising fifty minutes.

What is it about Batman that makes directors keep returning to that oft-plundered well? The fact that this is a comic-book hero who doesn’t have any super powers is always appealing, and there’s that delicious interplay between the vigilante who takes the law into his own hands and those misguided fools who see him as a hero. In this regard, The Batman feels a lot more nuanced than many of its predecessors, but it’s also sobering to think that the best film of the franchise is the one that he doesn’t even feature in.

Joker, thanks for asking.

Mind you if you thought Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Gotham City was dark, prepare to turn the palette down several notches. Reeves’ Gotham (shot in studios all over the UK) is filmed in tones of obsidian and anthracite. In this Gotham, it never seems to stop raining and the city is ruled by corrupt public officials, who gleefully take bribes and exploit the working classes for their own enrichment. (Remind you of anywhere?)

It’s Hallowe’en and a masked villain called The Riddler (brilliantly played by Paul Dano, though we don’t actually see his face until late on in the proceedings) is gleefully murdering those in power, who have allowed their standards to slip. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson), though hated by most of the police force, is invited to investigate the crimes by Commissioner Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), the only cop who trusts him.

The Riddler is leaving cryptic clues at the scenes of the crime and Batman is good at deciphering them. In the course of his investigations, he comes into contact with Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), crime kingpin, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), and The Penguin (an unrecognisable Colin Farrell, hidden beneath layers of latex and sounding for all the world like Robert De Niro).

As the proceedings unfold, it becomes clear to Bruce that his own father, whose murder initiated Bruce’s transition into the Caped Crusader, might not have been as innocent as his son has always supposed. Batman also comes to realise that there are many people out there who follow his vigilante tactics with relish – and who would really like to be him.

And, as loyal butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis) is quick to point out, Bruce’s father might have done the wrong thing – but for very sound reasons.

There’s a lot here that I really like. It offers a much more interesting vision of DC’s premier hero than we’re used to seeing – but too much time is spent wandering along dark alleyways that don’t advance the plot enough. It’s only as I’m starting to grow impatient with the film that it finally coalesces and ramps up the suspense, as it heads into a vaguely apocalyptic climax that is weirdly prescient and also, in a strange way, uplifting. Reeves has already proven his worth with the likes of Cloverfield and his astute retooling of the Planet of the Apes trilogy – but, inevitably, The Batman just feels too long for its own good.

This is a shame because Pattinson really works in the lead role (for once, I actually believe that nobody would suspect his Bruce Wayne of being Batman, since the two personas are so different). Kravitz is also compelling in the Catwoman role, and I fully expect to see her return to it. A nifty coda shows us exactly where Reeves plans to go next and, given the projected casting for the next lead villain, I have to confess I’m suitably intrigued.

But please, Matt, next time around… can we just have a bit less?

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.


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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



Wildlife is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and its an impressive opening gambit from the quirky young (ish) actor. He’s co-written the screenplay too (adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel), his second collaboration with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. I like it. A lot. It’s a quiet, understated piece of work, and it gives the actors space to develop their roles.

It’s 1960-something. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is fourteen, and he’s moved with his family to Great Falls, Montana. We soon learn that he is used to new beginnings, that his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a dreamer; he finds it hard to hold down a job. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), indulges Jerry’s fecklessness: she loves him. So she and Joe follow him from town to town, never putting down roots.

But when Jerry is fired for being over-familiar with the members of the golf club where he works, he decides he wants to join the firefighters tackling the flames devouring the Montana forests. Jeanette begs him not to take the job: it means leaving his family, and they’ve never been apart before. She’ll deal with anything, it seems, as long as they’re together. If he goes, he risks the whole relationship, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Never mind that Jeanette can earn more than him, as a substitute teacher or a swimming coach; never mind that there are other jobs in town; he’s too proud to take them. He’s set on his course, determined to see it through.

Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor, no doubt about it, but it’s at this point – as he leaves – that the film begins to flower. Joe’s pained, inarticulate response to the disintegration of his parents’ marriage is excruciating; Oxenbould excels at conveying discomfort without saying anything.

And Mulligan is magnificent as the aggrieved Jeanette, bitter and resentful that her sacrifices haven’t been enough. She’s stuck with Jerry through thick and thin, but now he’s abandoned her. She reacts with self-destructive fury, seeking to recover the girl she used to be, dressing up and acting up, flirting with men she doesn’t even like. There’s a vulnerability at the heart of the performance that keeps us onside, even when she’s making Joe’s (and our) toes curl, with the kind of sexual and emotional revelations no teenager ever wants to hear from a parent.

And Gyllenhaal gets his chance to shine too, on his return, when the inevitable consequences creep up on them all. No one’s behaving well, but no one means any harm: it’s a sad tale of human frailty, an affecting tragedy.

The Montana backdrop is beautifully filmed, the hazy smoke a constant reminder of the dual threat the fires pose. There is a slow, almost dreamy quality to the storytelling here, an emotional depth that draws us in with no sensationalism. Mulligan has been widely tipped for an Oscar nomination, and I can absolutely see why. Jeanette is a character of great complexity, the performance nuanced and intricate.

A must-see, I’d say.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield





This bizarre fantasy movie, helmed by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), caused some controversy at Cannes earlier this year because, as a ‘Netfix Original,’ it had no theatrical release and was therefore ineligible to compete with its more traditional brethren. But the cinematic world is rapidly changing and however a film is released, it surely deserves proper consideration. Whatever – it’s now available for all Netflix subscribers to see whenever they want.

The titular heroine of the film is not a human character, but a pig – a genetically engineered ‘super pig’ – bigger than your average farmyard swine and designed especially to feed a rapidly burgeoning population. Okja is one of ten specially selected pigs, sent out to farms across the globe and left to mature for ten years, before being recalled to participate in a competition to decide which is the best specimen. The competition is the brainchild of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Mirando corporation, and the competition merely a ruse to cloak the cold brutality of the operation with a cheesy PR campaign.

Okja lives on a remote farm in the mountains of South Korea, with Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a little girl who has come to regard the creature as a friend and equal. These early sequences are an unqualified delight. Okja is a superb CGI creation, beautifully realised amid lush mountain locations and sophisticated enough to challenge the best of Hollywood’s FX output. Okja and Mija live an idyllic existence until the arrival of a PR team from Mirando at the farm, led by the manic Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, a character apparently inspired by the late Johnny Morris). Before Mija knows what’s happening Okja has been pignapped and taken to Seoul, where (in the film’s standout sequence) she runs amok in a shopping arcade with Mija in hot pursuit.

Then a group of zany animal activists arrive on the scene led by Jay (Paul Dano) and suddenly the film isn’t quite so sure of itself. The main problem from  here is one of indecision about what the film is actually trying to be. What seems at first to be a charming, child-friendly concept rapidly turns into something much more controversial, replete with F-bombs, bloodshed and one scene so downright distressing it seems to have wandered in from an 18 certificate horror movie. Ultimately, this feels like a parable about the virtues of a vegetarian diet but, if that is the aim, it hasn’t been fully thought-through. Also, many of the film’s human protagonists have a tendency to come across as shrill caricatures (Gyllenhaal’s character, for example, a former animal lover driven to destroy everything he believes in, doesn’t really convince: there’s simply not enough evidence of any motivation here).

As the film thunders into its final strait it rallies somewhat, but the damage has already been done. Bong Joon-Ho is undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker but this falls somewhat short of his best efforts – nevertheless, it’s still a brave attempt to push the boundaries beyond the norm and is well worth checking out – if only  for those delightful early scenes.

Just don’t make the mistake of letting younger children watch it, unless you want tears before bedtime.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney


The Extra Man



File this one under ‘films we missed first time around.’ Originally released in 2010 and based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, we only came across it by accident, because we bought the DVD as a Christmas stocking filler for my parents-in-law who adored the book, and we ended up watching it with them. I’m glad we did, because this is something of a little gem – featuring a great cast, brilliant acting and a quirky and engaging story.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a hapless young teacher with a predilection for women’s clothing. When he’s caught trying on a bra at his rather stuffy school, he gets the boot and decides to head off to New York in search of a fresh start (he has vague aspirations of becoming a writer). Looking for somewhere to stay, he ends up as roommate to Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) a totally unreconstructed ex-playwrite who after falling on hard times, has been reduced to acting as a male escort to older, more fiscally advantaged women. Henry refuses to accept that he is struggling, even when he has to apply boot polish to his ankles because he can’t afford to buy socks – and though his opinions are occasionally shockingly out of touch with any kind of reality, still his character is so charismatic that you can’t help liking the man.

With Henry acting as a sort of life coach, Louis finds himself inexorably drawn into the world of the male escort (or ‘Extra Man’ as Henry prefers to call it). The ensuing tale is a whimsical delight, though I can see exactly why it didn’t trouble the multiplexes – it’s far too offbeat to capture big audiences. There are superb performances from the two leads and excellent supporting roles from the likes of Katie Holmes, John Pankow and Dan Hedaya, but I did feel rather sorry for John C. Reilly, who as the mysterious Gershon Gruen was obliged to talk in a high-pitched comedy voice throughout the proceedings.

The Extra Man was never going to be a cinematic blockbuster but it’s certainly worth checking out on the small screen if you get the chance.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Love and Mercy

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Music biopics can be perilously tricky affairs. Far too often, they come across merely as karaoke reruns of the original events and only a very few ever succeed (or even bother) to try and probe beneath the shiny surface. Happily, Love and Mercy belongs in the latter category. Bill Pohlad’s film offers two Brian Wilsons for the price of one.

In the 1960’s-set first strand, a bulked up Paul Dano does an uncanny job of portraying pop music’s most celebrated tortured genius, complete with the chubby bewildered features and the pudding basin haircut. The recreations of the band’s early concerts and TV appearances are uncannily accurate. After the Beachboys’ initial successes with their surfing songs, Brian suffers a debilitating panic attack on an airplane, and elects to stay in the studio and create music while the rest of the band head off to Japan on tour.

In the second, 1990’s-set strand, we meet another Brian Wilson, post nervous breakdown and in the clutches of bullying psychiatrist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti in a fright wig, looking strangely like Melvyn Bragg.) In these sequences, Brian is played by John Cusack, who is of course a very accomplished actor – but he  looks nothing like Wilson, or for that matter, Dano. The conclusion has to be that the director was trying to make a statement about his subject’s schizophrenic nature but I couldn’t help feeling that he’d have done better to stick with Dano throughout.

Once the two time frames are established the film cuts effortlessly back and forth, between two major stories. In the 60’s, Brian’s mounting confusion alienates him from his fellow band members and family – but here the film manages to nail the creative process of recording better than most other films I’ve seen. It’s wonderful to watch as a pop masterpiece like God Only Knows is assembled virtually note by note, before finally blossoming into the sublime finished product we know and love.

In the second storyline, a heavily sedated Brian, always accompanied by Landy and his henchmen, wanders into a car showroom to purchase a Cadillac and makes a connection with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks.) The two of them start to date and Melinda quickly begins to realise that Brian is under Landy’s control, every bit as much as he suffered under the tyranny of his abusive father, Murray. But how can she extricate him from his self-inflicted woes? And does Brian even want to be rescued?

This is by no means a perfect film, but it’s intriguing and compelling enough to keep you hooked to the end and there’s some fabulous sounds to enjoy along the way. At the film’s conclusion we get the added bonus of the real Brian Wilson performing the wistful song from which the film takes its title. You don’t have to be a Beachboys fan, but it certainly helps.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney