Sigourney Weaver

Master Gardener


Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Paul Schrader is the man who wrote Taxi Driver, which became one of Martin Scorcese’s most celebrated films – but, as a director, Schrader’s career has been rather less spectacular. He prefers to concentrate on smaller stories that feature flawed protagonists who harbour dark secrets. Master Gardener, which forms a kind of loose trilogy with his earlier efforts, First Reformed and The Card Counter, seems to follow the same format.

The master gardener of the title is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a skilled horticulturalist who works on the extensive estate (clearly a former plantation) owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he enjoys (if that’s the right word) the occasional sexual encounter, a process which seems to hark back to some kind of mistress/slave tradition. Narvel is nonplussed when Norma asks him to take on a new trainee, her great niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who – Norma tells him – has been through ‘some issues’, and whom she has barely ever met.

Maya is a mixed race woman in her twenties and we soon discover that her foremost issue is that she’s a drug addict. She and Roth hit it off, despite the fact that he has a habit of distilling everything down to ponderous lectures about the nurture of plants – but we have already been tipped off, via the plethora of bizarre tattoos on Narvel’s torso, that he’s had a very different life before he became a gardener, one in which the swastika featured prominently. When Maya is attacked by a drug dealer, Roth takes it upon himself to be her protector – a move that incurs Norma’s anger.

There are several elements here that really don’t convince. For one thing, Maya must be the most wholesome looking drug addict in history, while her ‘beating up’ comes down to a polite cut on her bottom lip. Norma’s vitriolic reaction to Roth’s interest in the girl, on the other hand, seems totally overblown. And when the story heads along the all-too-familar trope of a tough white man becoming the saviour of a younger female, there’s an overpowering sense of ‘seen it all before’. Brief flashbacks to Roth’s earlier life (as a much more hirsute hired killer) kindle even more questions. Where did that encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture come from in the first place? From the White Supremacists’ Handbook? And why is Maya so ready to forgive him for his previous excesses?

Some earnest twaddle about ‘new shoots’ and ‘the seeds of love growing like the seeds of hate’ fail to explain any of this and, by the time we arrive at the (again faintly unbelievable) conclusion, I’m starting to feel relieved that this is a free Picturehouse screening and that I haven’t actually had to pay for a ticket to see this movie.

Schrader has quite a history in cinema and it would be unfair to dismiss him on the strength of one film, but he can (and has) made much better ones than this.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Avatar: the Way of Water


Cineworld, Edinburgh

There’s no denying the fact that, back in back in 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was an absolute game-changer. It demonstrated the possibilities of digital filmmaking, relaunched the idea of 3D cinema and, in terms of the box office, was one of the most successful films in history. Of course there would be a sequel. It was a no-brainer. But we could have no idea, back then, how long it was going to take…

Thirteen years later, here I am in my local multiplex, staring at a giant screen through a pair of 3D glasses. It must be said that Pandora looks even more ravishing than it did last time. The world-building is second to none, the action set pieces as explosive as ever… but in terms of story, not an awful lot has changed. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has learned to love the Na’vi body he now inhabits and he and his wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), have acquired a family, mostly by traditional methods – though in the case of Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), through some scientific tinkering in a laboratory, taking genes from Grace Augustine’s avatar. Together the extended family live an undemanding life in their exotic jungle home, even finding room for Spider (Jack Champion), the human son of Sully’s old nemesis, Colonel Myles Quaritch.

But of course, happiness cannot last forever and all too soon, The Sky People (who sound disconcertingly like a 1980s dance troupe) return in force, landing their fleet of space craft with enough power to burn down hundreds of acres of forest. Among them is Quaritch (Stephen Lang), reanimated as a Na’vi version of his former self and assigned the role of hunting down Jake. After an initial skirmish with Quaritch and his crew, Jake realises that he is putting everyone in his tribe in danger, so the Sully family leave their familiar home and seek refuge among the people of the Metakayina Reef.

It’s here of course that the major difference from the first film comes into play. This new tribe is an aquatic one and much of the ensuing action takes place in and under the ocean as the Sullys learn how to operate in an unfamiliar environment. And the film does look exquisite, every frame captured in photo realistic style, the various denizens of the ocean portrayed with all the veracity of a Blue Planet documentary. It is an extraordinary technical achievement and you see exactly where all those millions of dollars have been spent.

But… The Way of Water has a three-hour-twelve-minute running time and, consequently, no matter how stunning it looks, I’m all too aware that there really isn’t enough story here to keep me fully engaged. Every set-piece seems to take forever to play out and, try as I might, I can’t help thinking about the other three (or is is four?) movies that Cameron has waiting in the wings. The final scenes take place in a sinking ship and have more than a nod to Titanic about them. This feels somehow meta: Cameron harking back to another of his former triumphs, where he took on the nay-sayers and won?

I find myself simultaneously hoping and doubting that The Way of Water is the film that will encourage audiences back to the cinema en masse. There are about eight of us at the afternoon screening I attend, which isn’t encouraging – but we’ll have to wait to see how it all plays out. Increasingly, however, the Avatar franchise is in danger of becoming James Cameron’s folly.

It’s massive, it’s impressive, but it’s ultimately an empty vessel. Can he really hope to rekindle those former glories?

The jury is out.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


Hold the front page! Adam Sandler has made a good film! No, seriously, I’m not making this up. He’s one of the featured performers in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and he’s pretty damned good in it.

Of course, those who know these things will already be aware that, in 2002, he made a film called Punch Drunk Love directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he was pretty good in that too. (At a push, I’d even argue that The Wedding Singer is a decent movie.) But even his most avid fans will have to admit that such occurrences are pretty rare and that most of his considerable cinematic output is either to be avoided like the plague or to be viewed in that ‘so bad its good’ ironic sort of way.

Here, Sandler plays Danny, the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a once acclaimed sculptor who, through a combination of bad luck and bad business decisions, now finds himself coasting on his previous successes, doomed to watch helplessly as other, less talented (at least in his estimation) artists, receive all the adulation that he thinks is his by right. Because of Harold’s single-minded determination to bolster his own ego, Danny has never really enjoyed anything approaching a career (he’s a failed musician), but has pretty much devoted his life to helping his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), achieve her ambitions to become a film maker.

Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is also terribly unfulfilled, the kind of character who drifts along through life going wherever destiny takes her and it’s clear that she too has suffered because of her father’s emotional distance. Harold is now bumbling through a marriage (his fourth) to the alcoholic Maureen (Emma Thompson), but, when an unexpected illness threatens to carry him off, Danny and Jean’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), comes to visit. Matthew is a highly-motivated and very successful businessman, who is trying to sort out his father’s financial straits but, when the three offspring come together for the first time in years, old resentments soon come bubbling to the surface…

This is the kind of territory Baumbach excels at and he has an absolute field day here. The story is told in episodes, each one jumping forward a little in time and there’s a delightful recurring motif of Danny losing his temper and the camera cutting away as if to censor his outbursts. Hoffman is excellent as the highly manipulative Harold and Stiller delivers a nice performance as a man being torn between caring for his father and punching him on the nose. There’s even a delightful cameo from Sigourney Weaver as… well, Sigourney Weaver. If you are expecting to see this at the cinema anytime soon, don’t be misled. This is another Netflix Original, ready for viewing at any time by its customers. However much traditional filmgoers may resent this phenomenon, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. Netflix has recently announced that they will be ramping up their production slate – and, as long as they continue to make quality films like this one, I say good luck to them.

Tune in and check this out – if only for the novelty of seeing an Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t make you reach of the ‘off’ switch.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

A Monster Calls


A Monster Calls is an intensely emotional movie, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and his struggle to deal with the realisation that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Siobhan Dowd, who conceived the novel the film is based on, died of the same disease before she could write her book. What we have here, then, is fellow author Patrick Ness’s interpretation of Dowd’s idea – and it’s good to see he’s done her proud.

Lewis MacDougall’s performance is extraordinary. (I should perhaps note here that he’s a student at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, where I now work; sadly I can’t claim any credit for his achievements, as he’s not in my class, I’ve never met him, and he’d filmed this before I even joined the team.) He’s a gifted young actor, perfect for the screen, with a touching vulnerability here that’s reminiscent of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in the 1969 classic, Kes. His anger, fear and frustration are all writ large, and Philip and I find ourselves crying at regular intervals.

The story is essentially a simple one, making use of the idea of ‘the monstrous other’ and exploring the concept of duality. Conor is conflicted: he loves his mother, but he can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing when she’s going to die. And so he stumbles between quiet acquiescence and towering rage, the latter symbolised by the unleashing of the yew-tree monster – like Jekyll’s Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Bertha Rochester, or even Blue’s Savage in David Almond’s graphic novel. Like its literary predecessors, this monster allows Conor to release his repressed emotions. It is both his undoing and his salvation.

There’s a stellar cast at work here, with Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell occupying the roles of Gran and Dad respectively, neither of whom are what Conor needs to fill the void left by his mum, although they both try hard, in their own ways. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of the dying Elizabeth is utterly heartbreaking; she’s a real chameleon, and it’s hard to think of her as the same actor I saw in Rogue One last week. And the monster’s stories are beautifully realised, with some delightful sequences featuring dazzling, stylised animation.

There are some flaws: the bullies’ dialogue, for example, is wholly unconvincing and depressingly generic, and the first fifteen minutes or so seem aimed at a much younger audience. But these are minor niggles in the face of such an affecting, tragic piece of work. It’s a lovely film, and well worth going to see.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield