The Wizard of Oz

19/07/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a perennial favourite of amateur youth theatre groups the world over. Originally a book by Frank L. Baum, published in 1900, The Wizard of Oz  is of course best known through the 1939 MGM film version starring Judy Garland. This version sticks fairly closely to the movie (although it does reinstate a routine, The Jitterbug, filmed but cut from the original cinematic release). Beyond Broadway’s delightful production is all done with such zeal and vivacity that it makes me wish that there was another word I could use rather than ‘amateur,’ because the standard displayed here rivals many professional shows I’ve seen.

I needn’t bother you with a plot summary – let’s face it, unless you’ve lived in a hole in the ground all your life, the events of the story must be pretty much stamped into your consciousness. Suffice to say that Sarah Kerr is a winsome Dorothy, and Matthew Steel a bumbling delight as the Scarecrow. Jamie Duffy and Matthew Taylor impress as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion respectively, while special praise should be reserved for Taylor Williams, channeling his inner Matthew McConaughey as the wonderful wizard himself. Oh yes, and I should perhaps mention that in this show, Toto is performed by an actual canine, one so cute, he (or she) has the audience giving a collective ‘awww’ at every appearance.

But this is more a dance extravaganza than anything else, and you have to hand it to the choreographers, who somehow manage to fill the stage of the King’s Theatre with huge numbers of brightly costumed youngsters, who leap and whirl and occasionally even perform somersaults, a real triumph of timing, precision and imaginative interpretation. Anybody who has the slightest involvement in musical theatre will appreciate what a mammoth undertaking this is and how faultless the end product. The depiction of the transformative tornado, created by scores of moving dancers brandishing pieces of material is inspired – and I love the use of younger members of the cast as the Munchkins, skipping repeatedly across a gantry above the stage, holding chunks of a very famous brightly coloured highway in their hands. I have no doubt that in the ranks of this exuberant cast must lurk some major theatrical stars of the future.

So, if you fancy a couple of hours immersion in the wonderful world of Oz, make your way to the King’s Theatre, where this delightful show runs until Saturday.

And how to get there? Just follow the yellow brick road!

4 stars

Philip Caveney 

 

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Incredibles 2

17/07/18

With a fourteen year gap between the first film and this sequel, writer/director Brad Bird can hardly be accused of rushing things into production – and the original was so perfect, it almost makes me wish he’d chosen to leave it as a standalone. But whether we want it or not, here’s a follow-up and it’s very every bit as assured as you’d expect from Pixar.

2 takes us straight to the heart of the action as Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Huck (Dashiell Power) take on the villainous Underminer, who is wreaking havoc in the city centre with the aid of a huge drilling rig. The Parrs are somewhat hampered by the fact that, whilst doing their super heroic duties,  they also have to mind the newest member of the family, baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), but at least they have the help of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), still the coolest super-dude on the block.

It quickly becomes apparent that not much has changed in the city of Metroville. Superheroes are still outlawed and the Parr family have been reduced to living in a shabby motel, whilst tackling villains in their spare time and generally being vilified by the press for having the temerity to do so.

But things start to look up for the Parrs when they are approached by wealthy communications mogul, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who, with the help of his tech-whiz sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), is planning to make superheroes respectable again and, what’s more,  they have the kind of funds needed to back up such an operation. After some consideration, Winston decides to start the ball rolling by focusing his efforts exclusively on Elastigirl.

This means she now has to go out and fight crime on a nightly basis, while her husband stays home to mind the kids. This would be fine, of course, but unfortunately Jack-Jack is now displaying signs that he too has special powers and, while the others members of the family are content with just one apiece, he has been blessed with many different abilities. Furthermore, if he doesn’t get a cookie exactly when he wants one, he’s apt to turn into a raging monster. (Bird is making a point here, I think…) Elastigirl soon finds herself taking on the mysterious Screenslaver, a villain who specialises in hypnotising victims by making them look at a screen… hmm. That sounds depressingly familiar.

Incredibles 2 does exactly what its progenitor did so well. There are action set pieces aplenty (perhaps one too many, which gives proceedings a slightly saggy middle, but that’s a minor niggle), the 60s style artwork is er… incredible and, best of all, there are the characterisations, the animated faces somehow allowing you to share each person’s inner life. I’ve rarely seen it done as convincingly or as effortlessly as it is here. If the Screenslaver’s secret identity is easily guessable from early on, well, we should remember that these films are aimed primarily at children, even if Pixar do excel at creating material that’s also suitable for big kids like me. All in all, this is a resounding success, so what’s not to like?

And… what do we think? Incredibles 3 in 2032?

Sounds like a plan. I hope to see you there.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The More You Ignore Me

13/07/18

The More You Ignore Me, written by Jo Brand and directed by Keith English, has the potential to be very good. Based on Brand’s 2009 novel, it tells the tale of Alice (Ella Hunt), a teenager struggling to cope with the demands of her mother’s mental illness.

Things at home are tough: her dad (Mark Addy) is a gentle soul, and he does his best to keep things ticking along, but he’s not having much success. Alice’s mum, Gina (Sheridan Smith), spends most of her time immobilised by medication, sedated into a miserable paralysis – relieved only by episodes of psychosis, when she becomes volatile, railing against a world that can’t accommodate her needs. Alice is isolated: she can’t invite friends over to her house, and even though she has a lovely boyfriend, Mark (Alexander Morris), she’s persona non grata as far as his small-minded parents are concerned, the stigma of her mother’s condition being far too much for them to comprehend.

And then, one day, Ella hears The Smiths performing on TV and – like so many 80s teens – identifies with Moz’s lost-boy lyrics, convinced at last that there is somebody who really understands. She writes to Morrissey, pouring out her heart. And – to her delight – he actually replies.

It ought to work. Morrissey himself might have slipped from grace in recent years (oh Moz, I wish you didn’t think the way you do), but The Smiths songs stand the test of time, and I’d rather judge the art than the artist anyway. And Ella Hunt is mesmerising in the lead role, giving a subtle, heart-rending performance that always elicits sympathy. Mark Addy is terrific too, all good intentions and broken heart. Sally Phillips’ turn as the UK’s only under-worked GP is a nice diversion, Alexander Morris is convincingly awkward, and Clive Mantle’s Dunk is a beacon of hope.

But there’s a curious disconnect between these understated, naturalistic characters and the cartoonishly broad strokes applied to Gina and her family. The cast is strong – Sheridan Smith is undoubtedly a fine actor, and Sheila Hancock ought to be a good choice to play her mother. But it doesn’t work: it’s like they’ve wandered in from another, much worse, movie. There’s no nuance here, no sense of who they are and, in Gina’s case, of what’s been lost. Her father and brothers (Ricky Tomlinson, Tom Davis and Tony Way) are even more ridiculous, a trio of stereotypes with no credibility.

In the end, I’m left feeling frustrated by this film, not least because Ella Hunt’s performance deserves a more consistent vehicle.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Swimming With Men

11/07/18

The Full Monty has so much to answer for. Since its initial success in 1997, there have been innumerable films about groups of men banding together in order to perform in front of audiences, and the makers of Swimming With Men are clearly hoping to find similar success. Herethe chosen skill is male synchronised swimming and, while there’s definitely the germ of a good idea at the heart of this endeavour, the resulting film never really manages to make its way out of the shallow end.

Eric Scott (Rob Brydon) is an accountant, currently going through a mid-life crisis. Thoroughly bored and disgusted with his day job, he somehow convinces himself that his wife, newly elected town councillor, Heather (Jane Horrocks), is having an affair with her boss. He promptly storms out of the family home to live in a nearby hotel and spends most of his spare time at the local swimming baths, working off his feelings of discontent. It’s here that he encounters a group of disaffected men who are learning synchronised swimming routines. They include handsome leader, Luke (Rupert Graves), former youth team footballer, Colin (Daniel Mays), and dodgy delinquent, Tom (Thomas Turgoose). Eric’s abilities with mathematics apparently make him an ideal addition to the collective and, pretty soon, with the help of swimming bath attendant, Susan (Charlotte Riley), they are training to enter the Male Synchronised Swimming World Championships. (If this strikes you as an unlikely occurrence, the film makers are keen to point out that a team from Sweden – who actually have small roles in the film – did exactly that a few years ago.)

But really, Swimming With Men fails to convince on so many levels, this is the least of the problems I have with it. There’s undoubtedly a timely message here about male bonding and the need for men to find a place where they can open up and talk about their unhappiness, but this film is a missed opportunity to fully explore the idea. Instead, the lazy, underdeveloped screenplay prefers to deal with simpler issues, but even then it doesn’t get them right, throwing up too many questions for comfort. Why is Brydon’s character so deluded? We are shown very little motivation for his destructive behaviour. And what really changes by the end?

There are also some less pressing  – but nonetheless niggling – issues. Why are several really excellent character actors given very little to do but splash around in budgie smugglers? And why is there no visible change over time in the physiques of men who are supposedly training hard for a World Championship?

Ultimately though, what really defeats the film is the fact that the sport of synchronised swimming, as performed by a group of amateurs, just doesn’t look very spectacular on the big screen. I find myself in total sympathy with the bunch of kids at a birthday party who are given a performance as a special treat and watch the resulting antics in bemused silence. (No wonder one of them feels the need to liven things up by putting a turd in the pool.) Indeed, it really says something when the film’s most memorable scene has the swimming team performing a spirited routine… on dry land.

This is a potentially interesting idea that fails to stay afloat and seems destined to sink without trace.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Leave No Trace

11/07/18

Debra Granik’s latest offering is Leave No Trace, a movie every bit as haunting and memorable as her 2010 Best Picture contender, Winter’s Bone. Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, this is a slow, thoughtful and affecting piece, a considered exploration of what it means to live outside society, how much pressure there is to conform, to opt in.

Ben Foster is Will, an army veteran with recurring nightmares and an aversion to bureaucracy. He lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in the wilds of Oregon’s Forest Park, which – although not far from the state’s bustling capital of Portland – is a vast, unpopulated area, dense with trees, and far removed from the ‘civilisation’ embraced by the city-dwellers. Of course they have to venture into town sometimes – Will picks up his prescription drugs from the veterans’ clinic, then sells them so that he can buy supplies of rice and beans and chocolate. But essentially they are survivalists, sleeping in a small tent, cooking over open fires, foraging for much of what they eat. They read, they play chess, they fend for themselves. They also practise being invisible, enacting ‘drills’ where they try to trace one another, preparing for an inevitable attempt from the outside world to capture them and draw them in.

When that outside world does invade, however, it proves to be a strong adversary, with teams of police and tracker dogs; Will and Tom cannot escape. Reluctantly, they leave their camp, and undergo a series of psychological tests to determine where they should be placed. Everyone they meet is kindly and polite; they are treated well. But they are not allowed to live the life they choose, and must try to fit in, whatever they believe. A well-meaning farmer (Jeff Kober) reads about them in the press and offers them use of a small house on his land. In return, Will must work for him, pruning, chopping and packing Christmas trees, in a not-so-subtle metaphor for the way his own true nature is being curtailed. The serried ranks of fir are so very different from the dense, lush forest they have left behind, and Will is desperately miserable. Ben Foster’s quiet embodiment of misery is one of the best things about this film: on the surface, he is doing what he’s asked, drawing little attention to himself. But it’s no surprise when he packs his bags, when he tells Tom that they are moving on.

Tom, though, is less elated to be leaving. She’s a teenage girl; she loves her dad and enjoys her life with him, but she’s learning to appreciate other people’s company; she’s excited – if nervous – about starting school. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s performance is remarkable, as understated as Ben Foster’s, and devastatingly engaging. She doesn’t say much about how she feels, but it shows in her eyes, in her trembling chin.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story: Tom is growing up, growing away. And the life Will needs has little place for compromise; even a rural trailer park in Washington, run by the kindly Dale (Dale Dickey) is too structured, too populated for him to endure. So Tom is faced with a heartbreaking choice.

This is a gentle but fiercely intelligent study of what it means to be human and how we interact within our world. Will has been profoundly affected by the war he has fought in; he is a product of the society he now rejects. It’s not hard to understand how the simple beauty of nature is balm to his soul, and the cinematography substantiates that sense of wellbeing, the lush greenery embracing him and Tom in a verdant hug, as intimate and knowable as it is boundless and strange.

A lovely film, and well worth seeking out.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Whitney

10/07/18

Whitney Houston was the proverbial golden girl. Born into a talented family – her Mother was Cissy Houston, her cousin Dionne Warwick – she was blessed with an almost incandescent beauty and a singing voice that was quite simply thrilling to listen to. Of course she was always going to be a star and it’s little wonder that her version of  Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You is still the biggest selling record by a female artist ever. But her career also followed a depressingly predictable trajectory. A meteoric rise to stardom, following by a rapid descent into drug-fuelled oblivion. Why is it that so many successful pop stars follow that route? Why does having so much inevitably lead them to the feeling that they actually have nothing worth living for?

Of course, the popular opinion is that Whitney was a saint, led astray by her marriage to bad boy singing car crash, Bobby Brown – but what quickly becomes clear from Kevin MacDonald’s astute documentary, Whitney, is that the seeds of her self-destruction were sewn years before her success as a pop star. It was there in the family that closed ranks around her and effectively became her employees, in the pushy mother who groomed her for success and the interfering father who stole vast sums of money from her and eventually ended up suing her to the tune of a hundred million dollars. It was in the two brothers who first introduced her to drugs when she was still just a teenager and it was in the ever-hungry public who demanded everything from her when she was successful and yet voyeuristically relished her dramatic fall from grace. And of course, it was in the tabloids, as ever, waiting in the wings to feed on the misery…

Whitney isn’t an easy watch. At times, it’s downright heartbreaking. MacDonald has opened the film up to be more than just the standard pop star biography. He pulls in found elements that reflect the world over the turbulent years of her fluctuating fortunes, contrasting her sweet girl image with the ugly reality of war and race riots. Unlike Nick Broomfield, who also filmed a Whitney biopic this year, MacDonald has the full cooperation of the singer’s family and what they have to say about her life is sometimes frustrating and more often downright chilling. Towards the end of the film, a shocking accusation is made about a member of the family, one that is quickly backed up by others in the clan, and you begin to appreciate that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

But Whitney’s talent shines through like a beacon, her superb voice even managing to make her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner (at the1991 Super Bowl game) a profoundly moving event. It’s as though her voice encapsulates all the pain she’s been going through for years, making it part of the fabric of her talent. Whitney fans may find this gives them a little more than they actually want to know, but it’s a powerful and affecting film that tells some uncomfortable truths.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney