The Post

21/01/18

In the era of fake news, here’s an interesting concept – a film about real news. More specifically, a film about a newspaper’s quest to tell the truth that doesn’t come across as some kind of hollow joke. There was a time, it seems, when newspapers were prepared to risk everything to fight for the right to free speech, and that time was 1971.

Stephen Spielberg’s The Post may be set in the past but its story couldn’t be more prescient. We’ve recently had the Paradise Papers, but back then it was The Pentagon Papers, a series of purloined documents that proved that President Nixon’s administration – and indeed, many others before it – had lied to the American public about the Vietnam war, insisting that it was a winnable cause even when they all knew full well it wasn’t. This secret sent untold numbers of young soldiers to their deaths.

When reporter Daniel Elisberg (Matthew Rhys) learns of this, he decides to turn whistleblower, stealing a bundle of secret government files and handing them over to the New York Times. They have every intention of publishing the story, but Tricky Dicky gets wind of their plans and serves them with an injunction, forbidding them to go to print. The files subsequently find their way onto the desk of a reporter for the Washington Post. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is eager to get the scoop, but first he must convince the Post’s owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to give him the green light. Graham is struggling to assert her authority at The Post just as it prepares itself to float on the stock market. Having inherited her position from her late husband, Kay finds herself continually marginalised, lectured and talked down to by her male employees – and, she’s all too aware that publishing the banned documents could land her and Bradlee in jail and finish off the newspaper once and for all…

The Post is a compelling piece of docudrama, helmed by a director at the peak of his powers – it’s sobering to note that Spielberg made this film largely because he had a few weeks to kill whilst waiting for the special effect shots in his upcoming Ready Player One to be processed. Given the quick turnaround, it’s astonishing that the film is as assured as it is. Furthermore, Spielberg has managed to pull in two of Hollywood’s major power players for his lead roles. Amazingly, Streep and Hanks have never made a film together until now.

What’s most fascinating here is to note how the publishing process has changed over the decades. Spielberg’s cameras linger almost voyeuristically over the process as the ‘hot metal’ printing presses are tortuously put together – and I love the scene where reporter Bob Bagdikien (Bob Odenkirk) attempts to make a covert call from a street pay phone, his nickels and dimes raining onto the pavement as he talks. Hanks is great as the news-hungry Bradlee and Streep gives an object lesson in understatement as Graham. The scene where she finally tells the men in suits what they can do is priceless. Make no mistake, this is also a feminist film in the truest sense of the word.

Having said all this, I don’t see The Post bothering Oscar too much this year – there are simply more exciting offerings to choose from. But – in its quiet, unassuming way – this is an important release that has plenty to say about the way government’s operate and how important it is to preserve the right to bring their actions to the public’s attention. Sadly, these are qualities that we are in danger of losing altogether. The events in this film eventually led to the impeachment of a President. What would it take, I wonder, to achieve a similar outcome now?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Miss Saigon

19/01/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The story of Madame Butterfly first saw the light of day as a short story in 1898 and in 1904 became a celebrated opera by Puccini.

In their version of the tale, Boublil and Schonberg – creators of Les Miserables –  update the action to Saigon (as it was then called) in 1975, as American involvement in the Vietnamese war heads into a devastating tailspin. The result is Miss Saigon: an epic theatrical event, brilliantly staged, superbly performed and totally enthralling.

Kim (Sooha Kim) is a naive country girl on the run from an arranged marriage to Thuy (Gerald Santos), a man she does not love. Kim is quickly seized upon by ‘The Engineer’ (Red Concepcion), a cunning wheeler-dealer, currently earning his daily noodles by showing the visiting American troops a good time. Sex, drugs, whatever they want: he can provide it – for the right price. He is quick to realise Kim’s innocence could make him a lot of money. But when he teams her up with handsome young soldier Chris (Ashley Gilmour), something approaching true love blossoms between them. In the heat of the moment, they go through a traditional Vietnamese wedding ceremony. But then some devastating news comes through: the Americans are pulling out of the war and heading home. Chris is subsequently forced to leave the country without his new wife.

Okay, so it’s not the most original story in the world – there have been plenty of films and plays over the years that have trodden a similar path. What makes this work so effectively is its epic sense of scale. There are thirty-eight actors working the stage in this production and they all give it everything they’ve got. The leads offer dazzling vocal performances – Kim and Gilmour are particularly strong, while Concepcion offers a mesmerising characterisation as a born survivor doing what he does best (his ‘American Dream’ set piece is a particular standout). The music, set design, costumes and movement are all of the highest standard and the show is as slick as quicksilver on a hot plate.

I must also single out one stunning coup de theatre, the final flight from the American Embassy, where the designers have somehow contrived to create a full scale helicopter hovering above the crowds gathered at the gates, a scene I watch in open-mouthed amazement. It shouldn’t be possible on a stage but it’s utterly convincing, a thrilling, eye-popping delight.

As for the story’s conclusion, I’m sure it can’t be construed as a spoiler if I warn you to take some paper hankies along with you. This is heartbreaking stuff and it’s a staunch soul indeed who will leave the Festival Theatre unmoved by what they’ve just seen. Many of the big blockbuster musicals fail to grip me, but Miss Saigon is a notable exception. I am riveted from start to finish.

Take my advice. Grab some tickets and buckle in for a wild ride. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Coco

14/01/18

Pixar Animation Studios can generally be counted on to provide quality entertainment but it’s been a little while since they truly knocked something out of the park. Here’s a film that puts them right back where they belong. In a move that seems destined to send this film plummeting to the bottom of President Trump’s ‘to watch’ list, Coco is a celebration of Mexico and its culture. It’s a dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to the country and, for once, the makers have got it absolutely right, employing Mexican talent in just about every area of this charming production.

Young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) longs to be a mariachi, just like his hero, the late (and locally born) Mexican screen star, Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But there’s a problem. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was married to a musician who abandoned her and her baby daughter – the eponymous Coco – for the lure of fame and fortune, so now, generations later, music is a taboo subject around the home. Instead, everyone is involved in the family shoe-making business, where Miguel is expected to one day take his place.

As the story starts, it’s fast approaching November 1st, when families across Mexico celebrate El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where everyone congregates in the local cemetery to enjoy a feast along with their departed relatives. When Miguel hears that there is to be a talent contest in the town square, he is determined to enter it, but for that he needs a guitar – his own, home made effort has been smashed to pieces by his over protective grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach). So Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz’s tomb, intending to borrow the late star’s famous guitar. In doing so, he inadvertently manages to slip between worlds and finds himself stranded in a land populated entirely by the dead – and it’s here that he meets Hector (Gail Garcia Bernal), a guitar-playing skeleton who is desperately trying to get back to his own loved ones on the other side…

Coco is such a ravishing feast for the senses, it’s hard to know where to begin with the superlatives. It looks absolutely astonishing in just about every frame, the music is terrific and the story is funny and inventive. Perhaps most importantly, it perpetuates that great Pixar tradition where it can be enjoyed as much by the parents as their offspring. Interestingly, the film has a PG certificate – after all it does deal predominantly with the afterlife – but it would be a sensitive child indeed who’d feel threatened by its lively cast of skeletons and colourful alebrijes (the spirit animals who look after the dead). The title Coco, by the way, refers to Miguel’s ailing great-grandmother, and the way she has been characterised probably deserves some kind of an award all by itself. This is animation at its most accomplished.

Ultimately though, how refreshing to see a depiction of Mexico that isn’t peopled by drug-dealing gangs, intent on torture and murder, but by loving families, who realise only too well that people only truly die when they are forgotten by the living. Perhaps this should be required viewing for all those Americans who believe the best way to deal with Mexico is to wall it off.

But I’m being way too political. Coco is perhaps best enjoyed as a slice of pure entertainment. This advance screening is surprisingly empty, but maybe the word just hasn’t got around yet. The news that is has already outgrossed the earnings of all twelve previous Pixar releases in China alone would suggest that the Disney empire is on target for yet another massive hit – and, in this case, it’s one that’s totally deserved.

Don’t you dare miss this. And don’t go thinking that if you haven’t got kids in tow, you can’t go along and enjoy it. Trust me, you’ll love it, whatever age you happen to be.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Darkest Hour

 

12/01/17

Biopics can be a bit like buses. No sooner has Brian Cox’s Churchill drifted over the horizon than it’s Gary Oldman’s turn to don the homburg hat and wave a zeppelin-sized cigar in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. While Cox made a perfectly good fist of his portrayal of the infamous war leader, Oldman submits a simply astonishing performance, a stellar tub-thumping object lesson in how to act everyone else off the screen. Despite several nominations down the years, he’s never won an Academy Award, but this should surely be the role to rectify that situation.

It’s May 1940 and the British forces in France are being disastrously defeated by the might of Hitler’s Germany. The unpopular (and ailing) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) opts to step down from the post of Prime Minister and a coalition government looks around for somebody to take his place. It’s a poisoned chalice and nobody on either side makes any secret of the fact that Winston Churchill is not their preferred choice, particularly after his key involvement in the military disaster that was Gallipoli. Nevertheless, he is chosen, and is faced with the almost impossible task of rallying the country to fight on, when most of his colleagues are intent on making a deal with Mr Hitler. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, looking uncannily like a younger Gemma Arterton) is assigned to be Churchill’s secretary and so has an inside view on how he operates, often dictating his famous speeches from the toilet (why not, his initials are on the door?) and explosively losing his temper whenever she gets something wrong. Meanwhile, the British expeditionary force is surrounded and fleeing towards Dunkirk and it’s starting to look as though they are about to be completely annihilated…

Wright has already dealt with Dunkirk in Atonement, so that side of things is kept very much in the background – or, more often, glimpsed from aeroplanes as bombs drop on the British forces. Here, the director concentrates on a character study of a complex man, chronicling his struggles with depression, his occasional lapses into bluster and his almost overpowering sense of isolation. Again and again Wright shows him enclosed in small spaces – riding in a tiny elevator, framed by the outline of a window, making important phone calls from the smallest room in the house. As well as that stellar performance, Oldman is aided by an incredible transformation, achieved entirely by ace Japanese prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. Even in extreme close up, his efforts are utterly convincing.

If there’s a price to pay for such grandstanding, it’s inevitably the fact that the rest of the cast – Ben Mendlesohn’s turn as King George VI aside – are relegated pretty much to the sidelines. Even the usually dependable Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine is reduced to wandering on to give her hubby the occasional pep talk; it would have been nice to see her given a little more to do.

But, niggles aside, Darkest Hour is pretty enjoyable, and probably worth the price of admission just to see Oldman give that speech.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Downsizing

09/01/18

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

 

 

 

Tower Restaurant

07/01/18

National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

We’ve been meaning to try the Tower restaurant for a while, and we’re reminded of this fact when we’re sent an email with an enticing offer, namely the chance to enjoy the Table d’Hote menu (£38 for three courses) with the added benefits of complementary champagne, coffee and petit fours. It’d be churlish to ignore this one.

The restaurant’s location is sublime. It’s at the top of the National Museum of Scotland (incidentally, a location that features prominently in one of Philip’s YA novels, Seventeen Coffins) and boasts a divine view of the Old Town, most notably the castle, resplendent in all its lit-up glory. And the service is spot-on: the waiting staff are all friendly and attentive without being overbearing. It’s an auspicious start.

There are olives on the table and, when we finish them (which we do, embarrassingly quickly), we are immediately offered more. We decline, but appreciate the generosity. A malty, crusty rye bread is similarly devoured; again, we are given the chance to refill our plates; again we demur, because we need to leave space for the meal ahead.

Philip starts with the Inverawe Loch Etive smoked trout, which is served with beetroot gel and lemon crème fraîche. It’s as pretty as a picture and tastes as good as it looks. I opt for the  game terrine with pickled pear and walnut croutons. This is superb: densely packed with a range of meats, all distinctly flavoured and utterly delicious.

For his main, Philip has the Borders beef Bourguignon, which comes with button mushrooms, bacon lardons and mashed potato. It’s a rich, sticky delight, packing a real punch. I have the pan-seared fillet of seabass, which – served with crushed heritage potatoes, prawns and saffron butter – is a far lighter, more subtle dish. I really like it; the fish is firm and the skin is crispy. Good stuff indeed!

We share two puddings: the dark Belgian chocolate terrine  with Maldon salt and honeycomb, and the Bramley apple and cinnamon crumble with vanilla ice cream. Both are eagerly consumed, and we are – by now – feeling very full.

Still, we make room for the petit fours that come with our coffees (a flat white for Philip and a black decaf Americano for me). Of course we do! The truffles and tablet are tooth-achingly sweet and yummy. And we leave secure in the knowledge that we have had a lovely evening eating lovely food.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield