A Gambler’s Guide to Dying

26/01/21

Traverse Online

We’re a little late to this one, which is a shame because A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a charming and engaging monologue, a delightful way to fill a spare hour. It’s the story of the narrator’s grandfather, a hardbitten Glaswegian, who discovers a love for betting on a long shot, even when such an approach incurs the wrath of the drinkers in his local bar.

Undeterred, Granddad continues with his mission, placing an accumulator bet every day, never spending any of his winnings, and always keeping an eye on the potential millions he might one day be able to leave for his family. When he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he even spots an opportunity to turn that into a lucrative betting proposition.

Can he somehow outlive the remaining time that his doctors have predicted for him?

This could so easily have been mawkish and overly sentimental, but McNair’s approach is too skilful to allow that to happen. The marvel here is that the narrator manages to take on several roles in this story, never relying on costume changes or make-up, but just adding subtle vocal inflexions to identify each character. Gareth Nicholls’ and Siri Rødnes’s simple but effective direction develops this, positioning the camera to establish who is who, so that I’m never in any doubt as to which of them is speaking at any given moment, even when it’s a quick-fire exchange of words between grandfather and grandson.

I also love that McNair steadfastly refuses to offer a straightforward happy ending to his tale, yet somehow manages to use the gut-punch of failure to give his story a realistic, yet satisfying conclusion. The tragedy here is that this little gem will only be available to stream for one more day.

Do try to catch it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Boy Erased

20/01/21

Netflix

An eighteen year old boy thinks he might be gay.

When his father, a baptist minister, learns of it, he has his son unceremoniously deposited in a ‘school’ for conversion therapy. Here, the boy is subjected to a daily diet of verbal abuse, bullying and indoctrination. This may sound like the plot of some sinister dystopian novel, but Boy Erased is based upon the real life experiences of Garrard Conley, who underwent just such an ordeal in the early 2000s. The film bears comparison with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, which related a similarly distressing tale.

In this version of Conley’s story, Garrard is Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), hiding his sexuality from his domineering father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and his protective mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But Marshall begins to have suspicions about his son when the boy’s relationship with a local girl fizzles out and, when Jared returns unexpectedly from college after being raped by one of his classmates, the truth soon emerges.

Jared finds his day-to-day life handed over to the harsh ministrations of Chief Therapist at ‘Love in Action,’ Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film, based on Conley’s memoir). Jared doesn’t protest his harsh treatment – on the contrary, he tries his best to fit in at the school, where he’s surrounded by a whole collection of other characters receiving ‘therapy’. Some of the inmates accept the religious hogwash they are being fed and do their best to change their ways – and then there are those, like Anders (Devin Michael), who have learned to play the system and convince their teachers that they are actually ‘making progress.’

To give the film its due, it’s nicely nuanced. Crowe’s character, for instance, isn’t the stereotyped tub-thumper he could so easily have been, but is shown to be a loving father, struggling with the tenets of a religion in which he truly believes, and one that he has devoted most of his life to teaching. And Kidman’s Nancy – another in a whole series of chameleonic screen characters – is perhaps the film’s strongest suit, the scenes between mother and son having particular resonance. When Nancy finally decides to stand up for Jared’s rights, it’s a moment to be celebrated.

While it may seem incredible that such institutions can be allowed to exist in the modern age, the truth is that they can and do – I have recently heard testimony to the existence of just such a place in the UK – and Boy Erased makes a compelling argument for their total eradication.

A harrowing tale, but one worth telling.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hamilton

15/01/21

Disney +

Yes, I know, I know. What took us so long?

Well, I’ll be absolutely honest. I had some trepidation about watching this and most of it can be attributed to one three letter word. Rap. I haven’t previously been known for my appreciation of that musical form. Furthermore, I’m also unashamed to say that I’d never heard of Alexander Hamilton until Lin Manuel Miranda’s celebrated musical took the world by storm. But, finally here it is on Disney +, just waiting for me to get up the courage to press the button. Eventually, I can put it off no longer…

And of course, there is a large helping of humble pie waiting to be consumed. And while some of this most assuredly is rap – even in my ignorance, I picked up on a brief homage to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – for the most part it’s an assured musical packed with memorable songs and some swaggering performances.

Alexander Hamilton (Lin Manuel Miranda) was an American statesman, politician , military commander, lawyer, banker and economist. (But what did he do in his spare time, you might ask?) The musical follows his progress from eager student to influential founding father; it marks his first encounters with Aaron Burr ((Leslie Odom Jnr), and his time as right-hand man to George Washington (Chris Jackson). There’s his romance and marriage to Eliza (Phillipa Soo), his platonic relationship with her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and his skirmishes with Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Whenever things threaten to become a tad too serious, up pops Jonathan Groff as a simpering, preening King George, to lament about the loss of his colonies, accompanied by a jolly, bouncing melody.

After some initial reluctance, I find myself increasingly drawn into the story. It’s a complicated one that lends itself surprisingly well to the disciplines of the form. It’s interesting to note that when Shakespeare’s plays were first produced, they were performed in iambic pentameter, the voices strictly tied to the rhythm, which is, in a way, what Miranda is doing here, the different vocal exchanges perfectly judged and executed.

And, while it’s mostly about the songs and the incisive wordplay, there are also plenty of theatrical flourishes to catch the eye, excellent ensemble choreography, superb costumes and some astute stagecraft. Hamilton looks like a class act and that also contributes to its success.

So, yes, I’m glad I finally watched this and also I’m pleased that I learned something about an era of American history I previously knew little about. Strangely, with everything that’s happening in the USA right now, maybe I saw it at exactly the right time.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Vigil

14/01/21

Netflix

Writer/director Keith Thomas makes his directorial debut with this creepy, low-budget ghost story, a tale steeped in Jewish folklore and set in the Boro Park community of New York.

Yakov (Dave Davis) is a young man attempting to escape from the confines of his orthodox upbringing, whilst simultaneously struggling with the memories of a recent tragedy. He’s also fairly impoverished so, when he’s approached by his former rabbi, Reb Shulman (Menashe Lustig), with the offer of a night’s paid work, he cannot really afford to say no – even though the job requires him to fulfil the role of a shomer, keeping a solitary vigil over the recently deceased.

The dead man is Mr Litvak and, soon enough, we’re in his suitably creepy house and Yakov is left alone, except for the unsettling presence of Mrs Litvak (Lynn Cohen), an elderly woman afflicted with dementia and prone to popping out of the woodwork at unexpected moments. She tells Yakov that, all his life, her husband was followed by a dybbuk, an evil spirit intent on twisting the mind of its chosen victim. The problem is, now Litvak is dead, the creature is seeking a new victim…

At first, Yakov is dismissive. After all, the woman doesn’t really know what she’s saying… does she? And yet, there are some very strange noises coming from upstairs… and that shrouded body isn’t moving…. is it?

You get the picture. It has to be said that the film’s first half is deliciously unnerving, aided by the dark, claustrophobic set, as well as Davis’s enigmatic performance and Michael Yezerski’s nagging electronic score. The best scares are provided by things that are barely glimpsed, by noises, shadows and Thomas’s clever misdirection. But of course, this isn’t enough to fuel an entire film, so, in the second half, there’s an attempt to delve into the psychological aspects of the story, to probe the spectres from the past that fuel both the mythical creature that haunts the Litvak’s home and Yakov’s own inner demons.

While this is certainly more interesting territory, it isn’t handled as assuredly as the more conventional jump-scares from earlier. The result is a loss of momentum, and the final confrontation, when it comes, lacks conviction. This is a shame, because Thomas has me perched on the edge of my seat for much of the journey. All in all, this is an impressive first film and I look forward to seeing where this director goes next.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Zootropolis

12/01/21

Disney +

Our recent flirtation with the House of Mouse affords us the opportunity to investigate some of the Disney product we’ve previously missed. Zootropolis seems worthy of investigation. There are several people out there (you know who you are) who’ve urged us to give it a try and, for no other reason than the fact that – pre-Covid – we were somewhat spoiled for choice, we have chosen to ignore them.

We no longer have that excuse. And of course, it turns out our friends were right. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

In a world where all animals happily co-exist, young rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up with one overpowering ambition: to become a police officer. Her carrot-farming parents are really not keen on the idea. Bunnies, they insist, are meek and cute, and not cut out for such shenanigans. But Judy is determined and, sure enough, after graduating valedictorian from the police academy, she heads off to the city of Zootropolis to start her new career.

The titular city, by the way, is the film’s most glorious achievement. A fully-realised environment divided into different sectors – desert, rain forest, tundra – it’s all rendered in eye-popping animation with extraordinary attention to detail. Watching it, you can almost believe it exists.

Judy arrives at her police precinct all ready to go, but the stern Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) clearly shares her parents’ views of what a bunny is capable of and promptly assigns her to parking duties. She applies herself to the task, and soon encounters the streetwise Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who has devised his own ways of making a living by skirting very, VERY close to the edges of the law.

When a series of mysterious disappearances occur around the city, Judy spots an opportunity to step up her career a couple of notches and cunningly blackmails Nick into helping her investigate the situation. They soon realises that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed…

Zootropolis is enormously appealing – a bizarre marriage between a futuristic sci-fi adventure and an old fashioned noir mystery. Look out for a delightful spoof of The Godfather in the engaging form of Mr Big (Maurice LaMarche) and relish the scene where Judy and Nick visit an information department serviced exclusively by sloths, led by Flash (Raymond S. Persi). You’ll giggle too at an appearance by Tommy Chong as a fly-infested yak, the manager of a… health spa.

Of course, there’s another of those famous Disney ‘messages’ embedded in this tale – a subtext that warns of the dangers of making cultural and racial assumptions, and how every individual deserves the personal freedom to pursue what interests them. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s an important message, isn’t it, and maybe subtlety isn’t always appropriate.

At any rate, it’s great fun and it’s chock full of invention. If, like me, you’ve put this onto the back (bunny) boiler, now might be the perfect time to try it out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Pieces of a Woman

10/01/20

Netflix

Pieces of a Woman is a hard film to like. It’s a powerful and, at times, harrowing account of a would-be mother’s experiences in contemporary America, highlighting the problems so often brought to light in a society predicated upon seeking blame for any failure – and where the consequences of such a failure inevitably entails a subsequent court case.

The would-be mother here is Martha (Vanessa Kirby). She and her construction-worker husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf), are preparing themselves for the home-birth of their first child, which they already know is a girl. They are anticipating a magical experience. But, when their chosen midwife, Barbara, proves to be unavailable, a replacement is sent in the shape of Eva (Molly Parker). She appears to be perfectly competent and immediately establishes a rapport with Martha but, as the delivery develops, there are unforeseen complications, ones that ultimately lead to tragedy.

This first section is presented in real time and is compellingly performed by the cast, which only serves to make it all the more devastating – but it’s the year-long aftermath of this starting point that contains the film’s true message. As Martha struggles to come to terms with her loss, her wealthy and manipulative mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), insists that blame must be apportioned for her daughter’s loss – and that Eva shall be the one to bear the brunt of it. The ensuing developments drive a wedge between Martha and Sean, that grows wider every day and their marriage suffers.

Writer Kata Wéber’s skilful narrative leads the viewer along a tortuous path. At first, it’s hard to like or feel sympathy for any of these characters, who all seem venal and self-centred, focused purely on their own happiness, and ready to crush anyone who stands in their way. It isn’t until the film’s closing sections that we finally find some redemption for them, and we realise that they are themselves broken by circumstance and by the overpowering weight of grief.

As I said, this is nobody’s idea of a fun night in watching Netflix, but it’s a story that will have resonance for many, and Kirby’s performance in the lead role is memorable. More than anything, it makes me thankful to live in a country where blame culture is less endemic, and where fewer lawyers lurk, waiting to monetise our misery.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Onward

09/01/21

Disney +

The release of Onward couldn’t have been more disastrously timed. We were all set to view it in an actual movie theatre when the pandemic hit big and cinemas had to close their doors. Now here it is on Disney +, and, like so many of its illustrious Pixar brethren, this is a fabulous slice of family-friendly entertainment with a brilliant concept at its core.

The story takes place in a fantasy world, where magic has somehow become unappreciated by its exotic inhabitants. Here, unicorns are simply pesky critters that regularly raid the dustbins, ancient artefacts are best sourced in thrift stores, and the local Manticore’s tavern has been styled to look like TGI Friday’s, complete with a karaoke machine.

Elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) reaches his sixteenth birthday, but feels too self-conscious to invite his friends from high school to his party. He’s also somewhat overshadowed by his brash older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with fantasy role-playing games and seems to feel it’s his duty to embarrass his younger bro at every opportunity. The boys’ mom, Laurel (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), has her hands full keeping the peace. Since the untimely death of her first husband, Wilden, she’s remarried to clumsy centaur cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a nice guy whose speciality seems to be knocking over the furniture. Ian, meanwhile, is still mourning the death of Wilden, who died just after he was born. It irks him that Barley has something he has never enjoyed – memories of their father.

But one of Ian’s birthday presents is an ancient staff, containing a rare Phoenix gem – something that, if used correctly, can conjure a ‘visitation spell.’ It has the power to bring Wilden back for just one day. When the boys attempt to use the staff, something goes disastrously wrong and they are obliged to embark on a perilous quest in order to rectify their error.

They have twenty-four hours. As the time ticks steadily away, their mission becomes ever more complicated…

What ensues is the usual Pixar mix of broad comedy and bitter-sweet sentiment – the boys encounter legions of mythological characters along the way (including Octavia Spencer’s Manticore and a bunch of motorbike-riding sprites). There are frantic chases and gasp-inducing perils for the boys to overcome and, as their time begins to run out, some genuine suspense is generated. Of course, this being a Pixar film, there’s also a central message and it’s to the writers’ credit that, near the film’s conclusion, they opt to pull off something really daring and manage it with aplomb.

This is exactly what’s needed right now. Brilliantly crafted, deceptively simple, heartwarming and, above all, great fun. In these harrowing times, what more can we reasonably ask?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mulan

05/01/21

Disney+

I’ve never seen Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan, but my stepdaughter loves it and I trust her judgement, so I’m predisposed to like this live action version of the tale, directed by Niki Caro.

The story is based on an old Chinese folk tale, The Ballad of Mulan, created in the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). It tells the tale of the titular Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can fight in the Imperial Army and save the dynasty from the Rouran warriors.

Mulan has always possessed the chi that marks out the greatest soldiers, but the patriarchal society she lives in demands that both men and women adhere to strict gender roles, and women are definitely not supposed to fight. Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, but she doesn’t want to wear fancy make-up or restrictive clothing; she’s not interested in learning how to pour tea with decorum, nor in acquiring any of the other skills needed to ‘make a match.’ She doesn’t want to be a wife; she wants to rise, phoenix-like, and become a warrior. So, when it looks like her ailing father might be pressed into battle, she steals his call-up papers and his sword, and sets off on her mission.

It’s a charming story, beautifully told. Yifei Liu is luminous as the eponymous heroine, her quiet determination both convincing and impressive. And this is more than just a worn-out, that-old-chestnut, girl-pretends-to-be-a-boy type thing, because – despite its historical origins – this is very much a story for our times, showing clearly how people – all people – need to be allowed to pursue their passions, and to realise their own natures. Indeed, in the form of hawk-witch Xianniang (Li Gong), we are given a very stark (and not very subtle) warning as to how destructive it can be when we are forced to deny our true selves: this is a woman made of fury, doomed to a life as an outcast, and desperate for revenge.

The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed by Mandy Walker, a brutal ballet of physical perfection. The battle:story ratio seems well-judged: there’s not too much for me (I tend to get bored watching protracted fights), but there’s plenty for martial arts fans. Philip’s especially delighted to see veteran stars given roles with appropriate gravitas, namely Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Jet Li as the Emperor and Jason Scott Lee as their formidable foe, Böri Khan.

The CGI hawk and phoenix are skilfully rendered, adding an interesting element of mysticism to what is essentially – in this incarnation – a realistic tale. And the relationships between the characters are nuanced and compelling, with almost everyone open to learning and accepting new norms and ideas.

For me, this is a genuine pleasure. I guess I’d better watch the animated version now…

4.1 stars

Susan

Soul

04/01/21

Disney+

The release of a new Pixar movie is generally a cause for some celebration, even when it can’t be viewed in its proper home, a giant cinema screen. This latest release, directed and co-written by Pete Docter, is yet another marriage between extraordinary animation and heartwarming storyline. If Soul doesn’t quite measure up to the likes of Coco or Up, it nonetheless rarely puts a foot wrong and even manages the seemingly impossible, by making me enjoy its jazz-heavy score.

This is the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged jazz pianist, still dreaming of making it big but hedging his bets by teaching high schoolers some basic musicianship. There’s an enduring cinematic trope that loves to depict teaching as a hopeless last resort for the not-quite-talented-enough, but Soul cleverly avoids making that mistake. A scene where Joe is enraptured by the improvisational skills of Connie (Cora Champommier) cleverly shows the true importance and rewards of being an inspirational teacher.

Joe’s shot at the big time finally comes out of nowhere, when a former student puts him forward as a potential band member to play alongside ace saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe’s over the moon – this is the break he’s been waiting for – and, when he manages to audition successfully, he’s understandably elated. He dances jubilantly out onto the street, falls through an open manhole and er… dies.

Before we can even say “Oops!” he’s in The Great Before, a staging post for The Great Beyond, where he encounters soul counsellors (all called Jerry), tasked with the tricky job of preparing unborn souls for life. Mistaken for just such a counsellor, Joe is assigned reluctant soul number ’22’ (Tina Fey) and, when he discovers that she is the possessor of a free pass back to earth, he spots an opportunity to make it to that gig he’s been looking forward to. But, en route back to life, a disastrous mix-up occurs…

A key section of Soul really puts me in mind of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, and I’m still uncertain whether it’s a deliberate homage or just a big coincidence. It probably doesn’t matter. What this film does really efficiently is to mine plenty of genuine laughs from some fairly unpromising material. You can probably number on one hand the cartoons that feature a dead person in the lead role, but this manages to find the funnies in the premise and that’s its strongest suit.

As ever, with Pixar, it’s the characterisations that keep me hooked and there’s the added bonus of several maddeningly familiar voices that have me reaching for IMDb to confirm who’s who – is that Richard Ayoade? It is! And could that be… Graham Norton? Yes it could! The animation style runs from an ultra-realistic approach for the sections set in New York to freeform 2D creations for cosmic events. This makes for an intriguing contrast as the story initially cuts back and forth between two worlds, before the different styles begin to seep into each other.

And, if the film’s ultimate ‘message’ nudges perilously close to fridge-magnet territory, well, it’s nonetheless a heartening one, that surely only a hardened curmudgeon could disagree with.

Then there’s that vibrant soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, which certainly lives up to the film’s title. Like I said, this may not the best Pixar ever, but it ain’t half bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

No 11: Five Course Festive Dinner

30/12/20

Brunswick Street, Edinburgh

Like many people, I have a birthday and I try to confine myself to just one a year. It does, however, seem to keep coming around with annoying regularity. In the normal run of things, I like to indulge in a slap-up meal to mark the occasion, but 2020 – as we all know – has been anything but normal and, in level 4 lockdown, a trip to a restaurant is frankly out of the question. Nor do I (or my wife, for that matter) fancy constructing said slap-up from scratch.

What to do?

A timely alert on Facebook tips me off to the fact that No 11, a brasserie where we’ve dined before, is offering a five course festive menu to be consumed at home – what’s more, at time of ordering, it’s available at a hefty 50% discount on the usual price. We flex the debit card before somebody changes their mind. On the big day, snowstorms notwithstanding, we set off for Brunswick Street, where we collect a couple of hefty containers, which we promptly ferry homewards. Upon unpacking the contents, we are delighted to note that some considerable thought has gone into this dining experience. They’ve even included a candle in a glass holder (bless!). The various courses come with a selection of matched wines, which – to me – is always a welcome bonus. As per the restaurant’s recommendation, we begin with a glass of prosecco, which is the best way to start most things (with the exception of driving or operating heavy machinery).

The starter is a ham hock and black pudding terrine, served with homemade piccalilli and a slice of fresh wholemeal bread. The terrine is satisfyingly chunky, arranged in thick, chewy layers and that zesty piccalilli gives it a peppery punch that makes it extra special.

Now we enjoy a glass of sauvignon blanc, before digging in to the second course, which is smoked trout. There are big chunks of fish accompanied by an avocado and rocket salad and a brown shrimp dressing. The wine has sharp tones of lime and peach which cut perfectly through the smoky flesh of the trout.

Next up, a wee bowl of carrot and ginger soup – well, why not? Soup can sometimes be meh, but not in this case, because the flavours are perfectly judged and there’s a thick, creamy texture that makes for a calming contrast to what went before. While we eat, the main course is browning nicely in the oven and giving off an appetising aroma.

When it’s ready, we pour a couple of glasses of a rich, red merlot and tuck into a delightful turkey Wellington, which is of such ample proportions, we decide to share just one of the servings, keeping the other for a cold snack the following day. The Wellington is beautifully done, the meat wrapped in bacon and encased in a thyme crepe, before being sealed into a crispy puff pastry lattice. There are layers of cranberry sauce in there too, plus a traditional sage and onion stuffing. It’s served with excellent roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, an al dente carrot and some wicked pigs in blankets, plus lashings of rich red wine gravy.

It’s suitably festive and effortlessly spectacular.

For the moment, we’re too full to continue, but luckily it’s time for a Zoom meet-up with my lovely daughter and her partner, during which I open my presents before we indulge in some rather brilliant online games, which are new to me and which, with the liberal addition of more alcohol, makes for a pretty decent birthday.

Once finished with the entertainment, we’re finally ready for dessert and it’s Christmas pudding cheesecake, which is very good, though I have to confess that the accompanying Drambuie cream is, for me, the one small misstep on the menu – it has a disconcertingly bitter flavour. I guess the simple truth is, I’m just not a fan of Drambuie. At any rate, it’s a minor niggle in what has been a very satisfying dine-at-home experience; indeed, it’s up there with the best that we’ve sampled so far during this infernal pandemic.

My fervent wish now is that this time next year, I’ll be able to dine in a restaurant, like in the old days before the world got sick. I’ll raise a glass to that and take the opportunity to wish all our readers a better 2021.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney