Us

23/03/19

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was an extraordinarily accomplished start to his filmmaking career – indeed, we chose it as one of our ‘best of 2017’ movies. Although Us has a few echoes of that film, it’s an altogether more complex and ambitious project, a powerful metaphor about American society (does Us actually stand for U.S? Could be…). This is about privilege and aspiration and good old-fashioned greed. If occasionally it feels as though Peele hasn’t quite got control of the plethora of issues he unearths here, it’s nevertheless an eminently watchable film.

The Wilsons are a likeable and clearly affluent family, who set off for a summer vacation at the beach resort where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) used to go with her parents back in the day. Her affable husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), can’t wait to hit the beach and rent out a fancy powerboat, just like his even more wealthy friends, the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), with whom Gabe has a bit of an unspoken rivalry. The Wilson kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her little brother, Jason (Evan Alex), are happy to be anywhere that has wifi and access to a mobile phone. But Adelaide is hiding a fearful secret. Back in 1986,  when she last visited the resort with her parents, she wandered into a beachside hall of mirrors, where she had a life changing experience…

The past soon makes its chilling presence felt with a night-time visitation by a mysterious family, who turn out to be warped doppelgängers of the Wilson’s themselves – and what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation turns all too quickly into a frenzied struggle for survival.

The first half hour of Us is brilliantly played, starting with subtle intimations of approaching disaster and leading very convincingly into a terrifying twist on the old ‘home invasion’ genre. But, as the story progresses and we begin to learn more about the Wilsons’ nightmarish visitors, we realise that we are in the midst of a raging allegory that attacks the tenets upon which much of middle-class America is founded, sending a warning to the current elite that there’s a whole underclass out there, casting envious eyes upon all those fancy possessions, and covertly drawing up plans to come and take their share.

There are, it has to be said, a few mis-steps here. The Tylers have little to do other than be obnoxious and serve as bloody victims of the new order – and, though I initially enjoy the jokey dialogue that sets up the Wilson family’s dynamic, I feel less comfortable when characters are still doing it in the midst of total carnage. Furthermore, the complex plot strands that explain the existence of the doppelgängers don’t always stand up to close scrutiny. On the plus side, Nyong’o’s performance as the tortured mother with a terrible secret to protect is really quite brilliant and, with a lesser talent in the lead role, this film wouldn’t fly nearly as successfully as it does.

In the end, this doesn’t really measure up to Get Out but there’s enough here to keep you hooked to the final frame, and – unlike many films in this genre – it also gives us plenty to think about afterwards.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Velvet Petal

23/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Velvet Petal, choreographed by Fleur Darkin, is a compelling piece about identity and self-image, emergence and self-discovery. Performed by twelve dancers, it’s as much performance art as it is dance theatre, a series of thematically linked ideas and images, overlapping to create a sensation rather than a story.

Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Patti Smith’s poetry and the migration of Monarch butterflies, the characters veer between languid and frenetic, assured and tentative. These are young people, in a bedroom or at a house party, trying poses and costumes,  selecting and rejecting a range of personae. Who are they, and how do they want to be seen?

They rarely work together (although when they do, moving mechanically, as if by rote, to a nightclub hit, it is singularly arresting). Instead, the stage is filled with micro-tales, vignettes of love and sex, of sadness and joy, with bystanders occupying the edges, watching or cuddling, or changing outfit for the seventh time. Sometimes, the lighting directs us to a key moment: two lovers slowly removing their clothes, hesitant, making themselves vulnerable; a young woman contorting herself to fit into a suit hanging on a rail, assuming an identity that seems uncomfortable, then summarily swept aside, despite all her effort. At other times, it’s hard to know where to look, there’s so much going on: one thing is certain, no two audience members will have seen exactly the same show.

The dancers’ physical control is extraordinary; for all its sensual punk-rebel attitude, this is a perfectly drilled piece, precise and disciplined. And the soundtrack, from Leonard Cohen to The Cure, is oddly powerful, mirroring and magnifying both anxiety and desire.

My inclination is towards more narrative art forms; I tend to favour story over concept. But when a production is as absorbing as Velvet Petal, I’ll take it exactly as it comes.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Joni 75: a birthday celebration

21/03/19

Joni Mitchell is seventy-five years old. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she’s probably lucky to have made it this far but, tragically, her condition has robbed her of the ability to perform. This birthday concert, recorded in November 2018 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA, is a celebration of her music, performed by a whole host of artists who openly acknowledge her as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in musical history.

I’ve long been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I have only to hear the opening chords of All I Want, the first track on Blue, to be transported back in time to a grungy little bedsit in Barkingside. I’m in my twenties, I’m spending my spare time singing with a rock band and I’m beginning to take my first tentative steps towards becoming a published author. And Joni is providing the soundtrack. Heady days.

Blue is, quite simply, an astonishing album, a collection of heartrending confessional songs, chronicling the up-and-down relationship Joni had with Graham Nash in the late 60s. It was followed by a string of equally accomplished albums, her career perhaps reaching its apotheosis in 1975 with the extraordinary jazz-inflected landscapes of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, where Mitchell’s lyrics somehow transcended the idea of mere ‘songs’ and became a series of brilliantly observed short stories set to music – and all this from a young woman who openly claimed that her first love was painting; to her, music was just a ‘sideline.’ Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a sideline like that.

So, here at last is the tribute she’s long deserved – a band of highly skilled session musicians supporting a series of top flight artists all performing songs by Joni. There’s so much to enjoy here and the standard is excellent, but there are, naturally, some particular highlights: Diana Krall crooning a heartfelt Amelia, Rufus Wainwright offering a plaintive rendition of Blue and, perhaps best of all, Seal delivering an absolutely knockout version of Both Sides Now. Graham Nash makes a brief appearance too, singing Our House, the hymn to domestic bliss he wrote for Joni when they were still a couple, and which has the audience singing gleefully along.

Of course, as ever in concerts like this, I miss some of my particular favourites but, when there are so many shimmering nuggets to choose from, it’s inevitable that some absolute treasures are going to be overlooked. As the artists perform, the screen behind them features photographs from Joni’s past and selected paintings that amply demonstrate that she’s no slouch at the artwork either. There’s even a clip from her infamous appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where she berates an uppity crowd for ‘acting like tourists’ and then goes on to slay them with sheer talent.

Of course, the saddest thing here is that Joni is sitting in the audience throughout, a silent spectator, unable to contribute anything to the proceedings beyond blowing out a single candle on her birthday cake. But it’s heartening to see that the big screen at the Cameo is completely sold out tonight. Clearly, there are plenty of others who love her music every bit as much as I do.

Belated birthday greetings, Joni. And many more of them.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Kindergarten Teacher

20/03/19

The Kindergarten Teacher is an enigmatic film. A remake of Navid Lapid’s Haganenet, this is a quietly unnerving, genre-defying drama, with a devastatingly understated performance at its heart.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is Lisa Spinelli, a kindergarten teacher longing for a more culturally enriching life. She loves art and poetry, but feels trapped by the mundanity of her suburban existence. There’s nothing wrong, exactly: she’s good at her job; she has a supportive husband; her teenage kids are decent, and doing okay. But there’s a spark missing. Her children seem happy to just pootle along, and she can’t hide her disappointment that they don’t aspire to anything great. “I noticed you’re good at photography,” she tells her daughter, Lainie (Daisy Tahan), “Why don’t you take dad’s old camera and set up the dark room?” But Lainie is dismissive: “I post lots of cool stuff on Instagram,” and Lisa is adrift, with only her weekly poetry class to fulfil her need for erudition. But she’s all drive and no substance: her poems are, it seems, derivative, clichéd. Her heart aches for creativity, but it’s out of reach.

So, when five-year-old Jimmy starts reciting oddly esoteric poetry, Lisa pounces on his potential. Habitually a quiet, undemanding little boy, he regularly enters a trance-like state, declaiming lines extraordinary for one so young. They seem to speak of experiences beyond his years, and Lisa gleefully transcribes them. He’s a child prodigy, she thinks, a Mozart of verse. And she’s determined to let neither the school curriculum nor his benignly neglectful family stifle the boy’s genius.

And, in order to protect it, she crosses a line.

It’s to writer/director Sara Colangelo’s credit that we never discover the root of Jimmy’s precocity: there’s a hint of the supernatural about the way the poems come to him, but it’s never really explained. This ambiguity serves the film well, complementing the moral uncertainty surrounding Lisa’s response to the gifted child; there are no easy answers here. It’s a deceptively simple piece, the very banality of Lisa’s decision-making process somehow highlighting the grotesque nature of her behaviour.

Parker Sevak’s delivery is remarkable for one so young; he shows us a Jimmy who is convincingly doubtful, yet easily manipulated. But Gyllenhaal is the beguiling core of this movie, demonstrating once again an astonishing level of complexity in her performance. There are so many layers to Lisa’s character, and we’re aware of them all: from her craven seeking of validation from hot young lecturer, Simon (Gael García Bernal) to her instinctive reluctance to allow her son to join the armed forces. We know that what she’s doing is wrong, but we can understand her, all the time.

This is a quietly powerful piece that will provoke discussion after the credits have rolled.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Wild Rose

19/03/19

After her confident showing in Beast, it only seemed a matter of time before we saw Jessie Buckley in a star-making role – and Wild Rose might just be the film to do it for her. As Glaswegian wannabe country star, Rose-Lynn Harlen, she positively owns the screen, even when starring opposite professional scene-stealer, Julie Walters.

Rose-Lynn has long held an ambition: to go to Nashville and become a star of country music (not country and western, mind; that’s a whole different kettle of corn!). But when we first meet her, she’s in the process of being released from a year’s spell in prison, where she’s been sent for throwing a bag of heroin over the wall to one of the inmates. Issued with an ankle tag, which means she has to be home by seven o’clock every evening, she heads off to her mother, Marion (Walters), who has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s two young children in her absence. The children barely know Rose and it’s clear she needs to spend time learning to be their mother again – but those long-held ambitions don’t leave much room for anything so mundane as parenthood.

Rose-Lynn soon discovers that while she’s been away, her regular gig at a Glasgow country music venue has been taken over by someone far less talented than her, and she can’t perform in the evenings anyway. So, at Marion’s urging, she takes a day-job as a cleaner for the wealthy and influential Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who, once appraised of Rose’s singing skills, decides to use her considerable clout to give her cleaner’s stalled career a boost – but it eventually becomes apparent that the only person who can really help Rose-Lynn achieve her ambitions is… Rose-Lynn herself.

The film is directed by Tom Harper and cannily scripted by Nicole Taylor, and is astonishingly sure-footed throughout. Every time the story threatens to edge too close to cliché, Taylor cannily subverts it and steers things in a much more interesting direction. Here are well-drawn working-class characters, who are never allowed to be the butt of cheap jokes, but emerge as fully drawn, sympathetic people with real lives to live. Okenedo’s character is also a delight, someone who’s prepared to give everything she’s got to help someone better their situation.

Of course, the icing on the cake is that Buckley has an absolutely amazing voice, delivering every song with real passion and vigour, whether she’s standing mournfully on the stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry or belting out a humdinger in a hometown nightclub.  Oh, and look out for a cameo from ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, playing himself with absolute conviction.

Wild Rose is a genuine treat, a country music spectacular that never slows down long enough to drag its cowgirl heels. Miss this one and weep!

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

17/03/219

This Netflix Original marks actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by William Kankwamba, the ‘boy’ himself. It’s a charming, assured production, even if the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-can’ title rather robs the film of any possibility of suspense.

It’s the mid-noughties and the Kankwamba family live in Malawi in the little farming village of Wimbe. Trywell (Ejiofor) is struggling to make ends meet because the land he works on, after years of irresponsible tobacco farming by Western companies, is alternately flooded or drought-ridden. Since the failure of the last crop of grain, the inhabitants of Wimbe are slowly starving to death. Trywell’s son, William (Maxwell Simba), is desperate to receive a proper education but here admission to a school has to be purchased with hard cash and Trywell has his work cut out just keeping his family fed, so school fees are an unaffordable luxury.

William has long had a sideline in fixing people’s transistor radios, something he seems to have a natural flair for – and, when he manages to salvage an old turbine from a local scrapyard, an idea begins to form in the back of his mind, something which he believes could make his family’s life a whole lot easier. But in order to realise that ambition, he will first have to persuade Trywell to part with one of his most treasured possessions…

It’s a gentle, heartwarming story, made all the more resonant for being based on real events. Ejiofor is terrific as Trywell and Aissa Maiga impresses as his long-suffering wife, Agnes, determined to head off the burgeoning conflict between father and son. But it’s young Maxwell Simba, making his acting debut here, who is the beating heart of the film. He does a good job of conveying his character’s hopes and ambitions, his stubborn refusal to give in when all the odds are stacked against him.

As I said, the outcome of the story is never really in doubt and, ultimately, it takes too long to arrive at its inevitable conclusion. But this is the tale of a remarkable and resilient young man; it’s well worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Spotty Bag Shop

17/02/19

Old Market Place, Banff

We’re in Aberdeenshire for the weekend because Philip’s visiting a school here tomorrow. We’re staying in a beautiful converted barn in Fordyce: it’s luxuriously appointed and has a stunning view of the coast. But although Fordyce is undoubtedly a lovely place – all winding streets and historic buildings, it’s tiny, and we saw it all yesterday. So today, we decide, we’ll head into Banff, and investigate what the seaside town has to offer.

A quick Google search informs us that there’s an aquarium in nearby Macduff, so we go there first and, after we’ve enjoyed the sea life, the helpful young receptionist answers our request for ‘somewhere good for lunch’ with four words we’re really not expecting to hear. “The Spotty Bag Shop,” he says.

“The…?” I trail off. “For lunch?”

He smiles. “Yes, the Spotty Bag Shop.”

This oddly named restaurant turns out to be based in a large, if unprepossessing building, tucked away behind the Co-op. Downstairs it’s all logs and pet food and outdoor pursuits equipment. If you want a Regatta fleece or a dog bed, this is certainly the place to come. But lunch? But then, we spot a staircase and when we follow it up, we find ourselves in a large dining area. It’s packed, and there’s quite a queue too. We’re handed a pager and advised to ‘have a look around the shop’ while we wait. This oddly named venue is certainly popular!

The service is brisk and friendly, and the menu pleasing – if a little predictable. There’s a Sunday roast on offer, but neither of us is in the mood for that. Instead, Philip opts for haddock and chips, and I have a quiche with salad and baked potato.

Look, this isn’t fancy food. The chips are frozen, and the sauce comes in sachets. But the fish is perfectly cooked – all soft flakes of flesh encased in hot, crispy batter, while the homemade quiche is also very flavoursome. The portions are large: perhaps too large, because not even I can face a pudding after this. Which is a shame, because the sweet treats in the display cabinet look really good, especially the scones and the millionaire’s brownie. I suspect that pastry may be this cafe’s real strength.

If you’re in Banff and you fancy a bite to eat, the Spotty Bag Shop will fulfil your needs. It’s a friendly, pleasant place, with a bustling atmosphere.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield