Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Fat Friends

20/04/18

Edinburgh Playhouse

There’s a lot to like about Fat Friends, not least its cast of disparate characters, whose lives are all dominated – in one way or another – by the slimming club that some of them attend. It’s refreshing to see such diverse body types represented on the stage, and for the larger characters to be just as fashionable and attractive as their slimmer counterparts. It feels very human, and there’s an appealing honesty that pervades throughout.

Our protagonist is Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who enjoys living above her parents’ chip shop and doesn’t worry one jot about her weight. Why should she? She’s happily engaged to Kevin (Joel Montague), and he loves her just the way she is. She’s proud of her mum (the rather marvellous Elaine C Smith), of course – Betty has lost five stone on her weight-loss plan, and is a contender for the prestigious Slimmer of the Year award – but Kelly doesn’t feel inclined to follow her lead. Until, that is, she discovers that her dream wedding dress isn’t available in her size. Determined that her big day should be perfect, she decides there’s only one thing for it: she’ll join Lauren (Natalie Anderson)’s slimming class, and enter into a race against time to fit into the dress.

The play is written and directed by Kay Mellor, and the characters are convincingly realised. Kevin Kennedy’s turn as Kelly’s hapless father, Fergus, is most enjoyable, but this is definitely the women’s tale, and the actors make the most of these boisterous, raucous roles. Elaine C Smith is a particular delight, and Jodie Prenger leaves no one in any doubt as to why she stays in work: she’s a bold performer, commanding our attention at every turn.

It’s not a perfect musical: the lyrics are quite simplistic, and the songs tend to comment on the action rather than informing it. That said, the music is lively and engaging, and it’s all very well sung. Some of the humour is a bit bawdy for my taste (think Loose Women and you’ll be in the right territory; if you’re a fan of that, you’ll enjoy this one) but there are people laughing all around me, so that’s probably just me. I love the set – a quirky facade of tipsy windows and shop fronts, which turn to reveal what’s behind the doors (the wedding dress shop, the church hall, etc.).

All in all, this is a bit of fun, with some great performances. It’s well worth seeking out.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Beast

16/04/18

Beast is a well-crafted psychological thriller with a twisty-turny storyline that keeps you gripped and guessing right up to the very last frame. The first full-length feature from writer/director Michael Pearce, it’s set on Jersey and exploits the island’s unique atmosphere to great effect. Make no mistake, this is an assured debut from a talented young film maker.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young woman haunted by a violent incident in her childhood. Years later, she’s still paying for her youthful transgressions, tethered to the family home by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), and forced to provide care for her father, who is going through the early stages of dementia. Little wonder then that she chooses to bail out of her own birthday party in order to head to the local nightclub to chase up some drinks and a little action. On her way home, she bumps into Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rough-hewn local handyman, who, it transpires, has also broken a few rules in the past. To Moll, he personifies the idea of escape and the two of them begin a passionate affair, much to the undisguised disgust of Moll’s mother and her straight-laced older sister, Polly (Sharon Tarbet). They are all too aware that a spate of brutal murders is currently unfolding on the island and they make no secret of the fact that Pascal is their number one suspect…

What might so easily have been a run-of-the-mill murder mystery is elevated into something much more profound as Moll’s dreams, preoccupations and hangups are expertly brought into the mix, maintaining a hazy borderline between what’s real and what might only be imagined. At various points in the story, I find my suspicions switching back and forth like a ride on a roller coaster with malfunctioning brakes – and, if there’s a certain ambiguity about the film’s conclusion, it’s no bad thing, offering plenty to discuss – and maybe even argue about – long after the closing credits have rolled. Both Buckley and Flynn (the latter also currently carving out a successful career as a folk singer) acquit themselves well and, as the ice-cold, uptight mother, Geraldine James is her usual brilliant self.

Shown here in an Unlimited screening, the film gets a regular release towards the end of the month and is well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Lebaneat

14/04/18

North Bailey, Durham

We are staying in a beautiful cottage in County Durham for an important family celebration – it’s Susan’s mum’s seventieth birthday. The area has been selected purely because it is equidistant for all parties to travel to, and tonight there are eight hungry mouths to feed. Susan’s dad has booked us in to this lively city centre restaurant offering ‘authentic Lebanese cuisine,’ so off we go. It’s a Saturday evening and, when we arrive the place is already rammed, with a lengthy queue at the door for those people who haven’t reserved a place, but our table is all ready and waiting, so in we go.

The staff are super friendly and, considering how busy the venue is, very efficient. We have two vegetarians and a vegan in our party, as well as five committed carnivores, and there’s plenty of choice for everyone. Our orders are quickly taken and, despite the fact that all the food is freshly prepared, the first courses arrive in double quick time, though it’s important to note that we are never made to feel hurried. Since the portions appear to be on the generous side, Susan and I opt to share a mixed starter, which comprises eight traditional Lebanese dishes – hummus, moustabal baba ghanoush, warak inab (stuffed grape leaves), tabbouleh, labneh (yoghurt cheese), falafel, batata harra and jebne halloumi. The dish is a veritable cornucopia of different flavours, each more appetising than the last, and is served with a garlic sauce and a plate of warm Lebanese bread, so light and paper-like it virtually melts in the mouth. The batata harra (spiced potato) is a particular highlight for me, and the falafel is light and perfectly spiced, but to be honest, it’s all very scoffable (though Susan isn’t too mad about the baba ganoush (smoky aubergine dip). That’s definitely an acquired taste.

For the main course, we both go for a lamb dish  – Susan has the lahem meshwi, freshly grilled cubes of meat, served once again with that tangy garlic sauce, some lightly grilled vegetables and a heap of crispy fries. It’s very good. I opt for chargrilled chops and they arrive, all six of them, accompanied by a heap of aromatic rice, some lightly grilled peppers and onions and scattered with delightful little shreds of Lebanese pickle. (Again, the latter are not for everyone, but I love them.) There’s something extremely primal about eating lamb chops and these are prepared exactly as I like them, the meat still succulent but blackened just enough to give them a satisfying crunch. Across from the table, the new septuagenerian is happily tucking in to hake fillets (again, a huge portion) and, to my left,  the resident vegan announces that he’s very happy with his chickpea and aubergine moussaka.

Okay, these may not be the most elegant looking dishes on the planet, but this is hearty, satisfying fare and I really cannot find fault with it. For a large group of people with different culinary needs, this is an inspired choice of venue.

We’re pleasantly full – too full for pudding, as it happens, but well aware as we troop out into the night that there are still hopefuls in the doorway, queuing for tables. Lebaneat have clearly got their proposition spot on. Offer the public generous portions of freshly cooked food at decent prices and train your staff to be both efficient and friendly and people will beat a path to your door.

Will we eat here again? Well, it’s a very long commute from Edinburgh but, next time we’re up this way, it’s certainly a place worth seeking out.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Howl’s Moving Castle

12/04/18

We had thought that the final film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season had eluded us – but, luckily for us, they have scheduled a Thursday lunchtime screening of Howl’s Moving Castle and I’m delighted they have, because this is surely something that deserves to be viewed on the big screen. For its sheer visual impressiveness, it’s certainly the best-looking film of the season. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Hayao Mizayaki’s sumptuous animation creates a stunning, steam-punk flavoured world, that contrasts charming Victorian imagery with futuristic depictions of flying machines and the horrors of warfare. Unlike the earlier films in the season, the version we see is dubbed and voiced by Western actors, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Eighteen year old Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a shy, unassuming girl, who works in her late father’s hat shop. She’s always thought of herself as plain and listens enviously as the local women discuss the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale), a powerful (and devilishly handsome)  magician who dwells in the eponymous moving castle. It is said that if he falls for a beautiful woman, he will devour her heart – so Sophie assumes herself safe from his predations. But then she does have an encounter with him and, shortly afterwards, is cursed by one of his rivals, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms her into an old woman. Desperate to find a cure for her condition, Sophie heads into the Wasteland, hoping she will find a wizard powerful enough to help her, but meets up instead, with a very helpful scarecrow. Pretty soon, she finds herself taking refuge in the moving castle itself, employed as a cleaner and constantly having to tend to wisecracking fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who manages the travelling building and makes sure that everything runs smoothly for Howl.

As I said, the world-building here is absolutely spectacular, encompassing scenes that will make you gasp at the sheer beauty and ingenuity displayed on the screen. Rather less convincing is the needlessly complicated storyline, which is at times hard to follow. I am also less enthusiastic about the fact that Sophie’s age changes from scene-to-scene (the older Sophie is voiced by veteran actress, Jean Simmons); though this is, at first, an intriguing move, it eventually seems to lack a consistent logic – why is she young in this scene? And old in this one? And… middle-aged here?

However, the  sheer splendour and invention of the film overpower me in the end. It’s an extraordinary achievement and, up on the big screen, it glows like a collection of precious jewels.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

10/04/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll admit it: I’ve a soft spot for Victorian potboilers, the more sensational and melodramatic the better. And Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 novella – about a doctor experimenting with a serum that transforms him into another man, thus allowing him to indulge in  vices without fear of tarnishing his reputation – ticks all those boxes, whilst also managing to be a deliciously clever treatise on the duality of human nature, our public and our private selves.

So I’m excited to see this stage version, adapted by David Edgar and starring Phil Daniels in not one, but both of the eponymous roles. I like this single casting, by the way – it’s much more expressive of the story’s heart than a double act could ever be. And Daniels performs the role with aplomb, at first clearly delineating between the gentlemanly Jekyll and the seamy Hyde, before slowly merging the two together as the lines between them blur.

This production, directed by Kate Saxon, has an old-fashioned, naturalistic charm: it’s very wordy, with characters expounding theories in long, uninterrupted speeches – much like the source material, I suppose. But it works. What they’re saying is fascinating, and I’m more than happy to listen hard and concentrate when I’m in the theatre, especially if the story is this exciting, with murder and mayhem at every turn (although this is made considerably more difficult by the family sitting in front of us, who keep getting up to go the toilet, and whose mobile phone rings during the first transformation scene).

The set is a triumph – a two-storey feat of ingenuity, allowing three completely different rooms to be depicted with a simple slide and turn of scenery, as well as a convincing outside street. Rosie Abraham’s singing over the transitions is haunting and evocative, reinforcing the unsettling atmosphere.

The supporting cast are all very good – Polly Frame as Jekyll’s sister, Katherine, and Grace Hogg-Robinson as Annie are especially affecting – but this is Daniels’ play, and he owns the stage. Of course he does; he’s Phil Daniels; we know he’s got talent. I’m extra glad he’s so good in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde because it means I can proudly show off to my friends, “I worked with him, you know” (okay, so it was way back in 1987, when I was fifteen, and I had a very small part in Screen Two’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and I had precisely zero scenes with him, but still…).

Check this out! It’s exactly as chilling and unnerving as it should be.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

A Quiet Place

09/04/18

It’s hard in this day and age to come up with a completely original idea for a film, but writer/director John Krasinski has certainly engineered a refreshing twist on a much-used idea with A Quiet Place.

The action takes place in an alternative America, one that has been overrun – not by zombies, or a raging epidemic – but by predatory alien creatures. And yes, I’ll grant you, this still doesn’t sound like something you haven’t already seen many times before. The creatures are never named and we are given no information about where they came from or how they rose to power. This is entirely deliberate and I love the fact that the filmmakers judge us capable of joining the dots on this. The aliens are completely blind and apparently have no sense of smell, but what they do have is highly developed hearing. Which means that, if you’re hoping to stay alive in this world, everything must be done in absolute silence. And I mean everything.

In the film’s powerful opening, we meet the Abbott family, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her husband, Lee (Krasinski), and their three children, one of whom, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is completely deaf and therefore has even more worries than the others, since she isn’t always aware when she’s actually making a noise. The family have ventured out of their remote house in search of medical supplies. We learn very quickly how complex this new world is. The family go everywhere barefoot, walking along trails of pre-laid sand, because even the sound of a breaking twig can spell doom for them. They have developed their own sign-language, their own way of doing ordinary household duties. And, as they quickly learn to their cost, battery-powered toys are not a good thing to pick up on their travels.

From this point, the film moves on in time. Evelyn is now pregnant. And of course, giving birth to a child really isn’t the quietest process in the world…

What we’re watching here, is, to all intents and purposes, a silent movie – and, as the film leaps nimbly from one incredibly tense sequence to the next,  it’s this very quality that allows Krasinki to wrack the tension up to almost unbearable levels. And that’s what feels so fresh about this idea, so effective. This, by the way,  is definitely a film to be watched with an audience. It won’t be anything like as suspenseful when you’re sitting at home, with the option of breaking for a coffee whenever things become a bit too stressful. In a cinema, there’s a palpable tension as the audience suffers in collective silence along with the Abbots – particularly with Evelyn, who goes through several levels of personal hell in this.

A word of warning. Don’t be the person gleefully chomping your way through a big tub of popcorn as the drama unfolds – not unless you want to be the most hated person in the cinema. My phone, which was switched to ‘vibrate only,’ went off in the middle of this and managed to sound to my startled ears like an express train thundering through an abandoned station.

A Quiet Place is, in many ways, a small film – a tiny cast, a couple of locations and a relatively short running time, which seems to positively sprint by – but it leaves a powerful impression. Hear that noise as you leave the cinema? It’s the sound of the entire audience letting out a breath of relief.

This is highly recommended viewing – and it’s quietly feminist too – though possibly not the ideal film to watch if you happen to be pregnant.

Just saying.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney