Ocean’s Eight

19/06/18

I like Ocean’s Eight. I like its exuberance, its stellar cast, its slick plotting and its silliness. It looks great: as polished and meticulously groomed as the A-listers at the Met Gala, where the eponymous Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the franchise’s previous lead, masterminds an audacious jewellery robbery.

What’s not to like? Well, it’s just another heist movie, albeit a well-told one – a slice of polished nonsense, not particularly memorable. And it’s VERY American in its glorification of the maverick, a veritable celebration of outlaws and their crimes. Can you imagine a British film on a similar subject where everything runs so smoothly, where the thieves are as sympathetically presented, where no one bungles anything? Ocean and her team are almost super-human. All that talent – it’s a shame it’s wasted stealing sparkly stones. But still.

It’s great to see this fine group of actors given the chance to have some fun, playing roles that are strong, cool, funny and exciting. They don’t have to be seductive or damaged or any of the other limited options usually available to mainstream-movie women over thirty. (Of the eight, only Awkwafina is still – just in her twenties: Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are all in their thirties; Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in their forties, and – almost unbelievably – Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham-Carter are over fifty now. How did that happen?) They all look like they’re having fun, especially Blanchett, razzing around on her motorbike, exuding charisma.

The plot’s a pretty simple one, even if the plan within is fiendishly complex. Debbie Ocean has been in prison for the past five years, and has spent her time conceiving every detail of this heist. She wants to pull off this crime, not just for the riches it will afford her, but for the kicks, and to live up to her family name. If she can exact revenge upon her ex at the same time, well, why wouldn’t she? So she looks up her old ally, Lou (Blanchett), currently engaged in watering down vodka at a nightclub she owns, and lays out her idea. They assemble a team and away they go.

It’s a shame there’s not much jeopardy: once the group has been established, the film is pretty much a series of daring steps, each one successful, building towards the climactic moment when the diamonds are snatched. The boldness is impressive, but there’s not much to feel other than admiration for their cunning; it’s pretty much a one-note film.

James Corden’s appearance in the final act is fun: he’s a much vilified man, but I’m never really sure why. He’s always been a good actor, and he’s very funny here, with some laugh-out-loud lines that help to puncture the smugness that’s in danger of creeping in.

All in all, this is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours; sadly though, that’s all it is.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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Filmworker

18/06/18

Behind every great film director stands a whole horde of underpaid, overworked minions, whose very raison d’etre is to enable said director to get his or her vision up onto the big screen, exactly as it has been envisioned. As great directors go, few are as legendary as the late, great Stanley Kubrick. But Filmworker is not so much his story as that of one of those underpaid, overworked minions, in this case a man by the name of  Leon Vitali.

Vitali’s story is unusual to say the very least. In 1967, he went to the pictures to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and casually remarked to his companion, ‘One day, I’m going to work for that director.’ Vitali went on to be a pretty successful actor, appearing in all manner of films and TV shows – weirdly, I vividly remember his appearances in the comedy series, Please, Sir, when I was just a kid. And then, in 1975, he did indeed get to work with Kubrick, playing a major role in his lavish (and under-appreciated ) historical drama, Barry Lyndon. But Vitali was much more interested in the nuts and bolts of film making than developing a career in acting and, against all advice, he gave it up to become Kubrick’s right hand man, a role he fulfilled until the director’s death in 1999, shortly after completing filming on Eyes Wide Shut. In all the tributes and ceremonies that followed Kubrick’s death, Vitali was pretty much ignored – he didn’t even receive an invitation to an exhibition based around the director’s film legacy – and yet his loyalty and love for his former employer is all too evident in this compelling documentary, which provides an intriguing look into the four features they worked on together and makes me appreciate the nuts and bolts that underlie every movie.

It must be said that the picture of Kubrick that emerges from this story is not a particularly salutary one, even if Vitali won’t hear a bad word said about him. Kubrick seems to have relished piling tons of work onto his ‘gopher,’ relentlessly making him go over and over every tiny detail – but of course, it was this very attention to detail that made Kubrick the unique director that he was and Vitali seems to have been happy to take the punishment. It’s sobering though, to see the evident toll that such a brutal schedule has taken on Vitali’s health, leaving him a shadow of his former self. More importantly, though, it does make you admire his tenacity and loyalty in doing everything he can to ensure that Kubrick’s cinematic heritage remains as pristine as he himself would have wanted. Hardly surprising then, that the story ends with the news that Vitali is currently working on a new digital transfer of 2001.

While this certainly won’t be for everyone – a working knowledge of Kubrick’s films is, I believe, a definite advantage – I find this an intriguing and curiously affecting story. It also means that whenever I rewatch a Kubrick film, I’ll be thinking of the unsung hero standing at his shoulder, helping the creative wheels to run smoothly.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Restaurant Martin Wishart

16/06/18

54 The Shore, Leith

We’re here because it’s my birthday, and I can’t think of any way I’d rather spend it than eating fancy food with my lovely husband. It’s raining (of course; it always rains on my birthday), so we get the bus to The Shore rather than walking from Edinburgh along the Waters of Leith as we’d originally planned. No matter: we’re feeling festive and happy and looking forward to our lunch.

The restaurant is achingly tasteful: all muted colours and hushed tones, managing to strike a pleasing balance between ‘relaxed’ and ‘formal’ – it feels special here, but there’s a convivial atmosphere nonetheless. The amuse bouches we’re presented with upon arrival really set the tone: they’re savoury macarons, bright pink (beetroot) and green (pistachio), filled with horseradish and chipotle cream respectively. They’re light and crisp, unusual and appealing, a delightful way to start things off.

The wine list is extensive – there are pages and pages of it – and, if I’m honest, a little intimidating (despite being very practised imbibers, we’re a long way from connoisseurs). We decide to play it safe and order a New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blanc, because we’ve never tried one of those we don’t like, but the sommelier steers us away from this towards an Argentinian Torrontes, which he says will better complement our food. He’s right – it’s ideal – and, as it’s considerably cheaper than our original choice, seems like a genuine recommendation rather than a cunning piece of upselling. Bravo!

We both opt for five course tasting menus: Philip’s is the ‘standard’ one with meat and fish for £75, mine the vegetarian for £70 (I’m not actually herbivorous; I just like the look of what’s on offer here). Everything we’re served is eye-catchingly presented; the precision is astonishing. And the flavours are all so intense, so perfectly matched… well, I guess they don’t give Michelin stars away for nothing, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

There are too many little plates of loveliness to describe them all here; suffice to say we’re impressed with every course. The standout from my menu is the sweetcorn and polenta, served with crème fraîche, chilli and lime, which tastes like sweetcorn to the power of ten, and really elevates that humble cereal, although the aubergine caponata with feta and herb gnudi is a close contender – and I don’t usually like aubergine at all. The gnudi in particular are a revelation, pleasingly chewy and salty against the zing of the vegetables. Philip’s especially impressed with his ceviche of Gigha halibut with mango and passion fruit, which he says is particularly light and fresh. He’s also pretty taken with the oyster blade of Black Angus beef, which is served with peas, broad beans, black garlic and a rich roast onion sauce.

But the devil is in the detail, as they say, and it’s the details here that add up to make this such a marvellous experience. The butter for example, which accompanies the twists of white or olive bread, is a homemade one, flavoured with salt and seaweed; we can hardly get enough of it. No supermarket butter will ever pass muster again. And the petit fours that come with our coffee are little gems: a tiny donut bursting with caramelised apple, a salted caramel truffle I’m still drooling over now.

So, no mis-steps, no niggles. Just a long, leisurely lunch (we’re here for two and a half hours), with friendly service and some spectacular cooking. Happy birthday to me. And back out into the rain.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Hereditary

14/06/18

The advance buzz about this film has been powerful. There have been comparisons to The Exorcist – the movie that in 1973, caused me to write my first ever film review, a habit that has continued unbroken ever since. In its central theme, however,  Hereditary is much closer to another classic, Rosemary’s Baby, but – while it certainly has much to recommend it – it’s not really in the same league as either of those other horror milestones; moreover, it’s fatally compromised by an ending that’s so risible, it actually causes audience laughter in the screening I attend.

After the death of her estranged and secretive mother, Annie (Toni Collette), an artist who specialises in recreating scenes from her life in miniature, starts to unravel a series of clues from the odds and ends her mother left behind. Her 13 year old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), has clearly been powerfully affected by her grandmother’s death, behaving in a strange and very disconcerting manner, while her older brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), is more interested in the popular teenage pursuits of getting stoned and laid. Annie’s accommodating husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), just tries to keep everything rubbing along as best he can. But when Peter is a key player in a tragic and accidental death, something evil seems to settle around the house like a shroud, exerting an increasingly powerful grip…

The first thing to say about Hereditary is that first time writer/director Ari Aster has forged a powerful and highly effective debut. Eschewing the fast-paced jump cuts of many contemporary horror films, this is a real slow burner, a simmering pressure cooker that only gradually comes to the boil and manages to instil in the viewer an overpowering sense of creeping horror. The cinematography eerily manages to mix Annie’s doll’s house imagery with the actual interiors from the rambling, family home, while Toni Collette puts in an extraordinarily accomplished performance in the lead role, managing to convince us that she is genuinely terrified.

But then there’s that awful ending, which – to my mind at least – manages to destroy all the accomplishments that have gone before. And while I appreciate there’s an necessity to tie up the loose ends of the plot, it helps if that plot makes some kind of narrative sense. It must be said that other reviewers seem to have had no problem with this, so perhaps I’m just difficult to please – but trust me, the audience reaction on the evening I view this is pretty unequivocal. However, in an attempt to ensure fairness, I’ve decided to star-rate this film rather differently from our other reviews.

(Most of the film) 4.4 stars

(Last 10 minutes) 1 star

Philip Caveney

The Last Ship

12/06/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Last Ship has a new book by director Lorne Campbell to complement Sting’s music and lyrics – and it’s a remarkable piece of work. The earlier version, which opened in Chicago in 2014, enjoyed only moderate success; this latest incarnation perhaps explains why: there’s something so decidedly British about it, it’s no surprise it didn’t quite translate.

Based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of a Tyneside shipyard, it tells the story of the workers, who are sold out by management and MPs, victims of the Ridley plan to cut government spending and weaken their trade unions. It’s the 1980s; the miners’ strike has already shaken the country to its core. The ship-builders know they are likely to lose their fight, but they’re resolute: they’ll do what it takes to keep their yard open, to complete the ship they’ve been working on, to prevent it being sold for scrap. Because, as their foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) remind us, it’s all they’ve got, their entire community built around these jobs.

Meanwhile, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) is back in town, after seventeen long years at sea. He didn’t want to work in the shipyards, so he sailed away instead, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend behind; it was the price he had to pay. He’s surprised to discover Meg (Frances McNamee) is still there, running the local pub these days, as well as a few other businesses – and there’s a greater surprise in store for him, namely the rebellious wannabe musician, Ellen (Katie Moore), the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Awkward.

If the story is a little hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a strong enough hook for the action, and the music works its magic, the choral numbers especially rousing and anthemic, with lots of Celtic riffs and foot-stamping to spare. The characters are engaging and their plight adroitly told. I especially like the chorus of working men, who are clearly delineated, a real set of diverse people rather than a faceless mass: there are poets here as well as pissheads, softies as well as swaggerers.

But it’s the design by 59 Productions that really elevates this musical: an industrial shell of a set enhanced by truly awesome projections, their grandeur and precision a thing of real wonder, transporting us in an instant from picket-line to fireside, from stormy seas to cosy pub. There is real mastery in this art.

The closing speech is a stirring one, all the more so because it’s delivered by Ellen, the youngest character in the play. It speaks of hope and direct action, of the people taking back control, refusing to be cowed by fat cats and corporations. All power to ’em, I say. And all power to this show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

11/06/18

Another day, another instalment of a well-worn movie franchise.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first heard about this, I wasn’t overly inclined to bother with it. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) was okay, but nothing in it instilled in me the appetite for another monster helping. But then I noticed, that this time out, the movie was to be directed by J A Bayona and my curiosity was aroused. I’ve admired his three previous offerings, all very different beasts – The Orphanage, The Impossible and A Monster Calls, exceptional films, every one. Could he possibly bring something new to the table?

Fallen Kingdom begins with news that the ex-theme park of Isla Nubla, now a dinosaur haven, is in big trouble. The island’s resident volcano has decided to blow its top and its saurian inhabitants appear to be doomed to extinction all over again. John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) has devised a rescue mission, which means that eleven different species will be captured and shipped off to a new, safe haven. Lockwood is terminally ill so the organisation of this complex mission has been left to his young assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), a man we just know at a glance is not entirely trustworthy. Mills calls in Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help with the mission and she enlists former love interest, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, as affable as ever), to assist her. With a couple of young associates in tow, they head off to Isla Nubla. (The good news is that Clare actually remembers to pack some sensible footwear this time!) Once on the island, they quickly discover that the mission is nothing like as straightforward as they originally supposed…

All right, so the first third of the movie is beautifully filmed and there are some decent people-versus-lava scenes. The dinosaurs are state-of-the-art CGI and, though there’s nothing here to disgrace Stephen Spielberg’s game-changing original, neither is there very much in the way of surprises. Indeed, this first section is haunted by that most deadly of dinosaurs, the Nothingnewbeforeus. Isla Nubla goes up in smoke and I start to think that this is the fate that’s inevitably going to befall the franchise.

But then the action shifts to Benjamin Lockwood’s estate in California and the film instantly takes a big step up, heading in a different, and much more compelling direction. The idea here is that no matter how well intended an original idea is, there are ruthless people waiting in the wings, ready to step in and monetise it. In comes the ever-dependable Toby Jones as Gunnar Eversol, a smug and utterly repellant dino auctioneer. He’s there to sell off the ‘rescued’ creatures to the highest bidder. There’s also a new addition amongst the specimens, a hybrid dinosaur called the Indoraptor,  a super killing machine that’s just crying out to to be ‘weaponised.’

When the auction goes a bit haywire, Bayona ramps up the suspense to almost unbearable levels and, there are some scenes that ride very close to the wind in terms of the film’s 12A rating. Best of all, there’s a fabulous sequence where Lockwood’s granddaughter hides in her bedroom, as the Indoraptor resolutely makes its way towards her. Bayona uses shadows and music to create something both menacing and enchanting – like a dark Grimm’s fairy tale with the wolf replaced by the most terrifying creature imaginable. If the film had all been as good as this, we’d be talking a much higher star rating.

Still, against all the odds, Bayona has managed to imprint his own DNA into this over-familiar franchise and in so doing, has created his own hybrid beast. The concluding announcement of yet another new direction for the series seems suddenly a much more interesting proposition. If they can get Bayona to direct, I for one, am in.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

10/06/18

I first viewed this film at an RAF cinema shortly after its initial release in 1964. I was around fourteen years old at the time, and I can still remember how amazed I was by it, how disorientated. I had literally never seen anything quite like it, this weird blend of cartoonish hilarity and overwhelming terror. In those days of ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets, we spent much of our time worrying about impending nuclear Armageddon. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to claim that now, more than fifty years’ later, such fears are firmly behind us?

On Burpelson Air Force Base, the extremely paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has become convinced of a communist plot to poison the American water supply and, with this in mind, promptly orders a nuclear missile strike on Russia (as you do). General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) is the man charged with the tricky task of breaking the news to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellars in one of three roles he plays in the film), whilst also pointing out that, because of the clandestine nature of the protocol that surrounds such events, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to call the whole thing off. Meanwhile, Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew of airmen are determined to carry out their orders, no matter what stands in their way.

Co-written by director Stanley Kubrick, with Terry Southern and Peter George, Dr Strangelove is a ground-breaking satire with a bizarre, cartoonish storyline that really ought to be totally beyond belief, but sadly, given recent world events, feels all too prescient. There are some extraordinary performances here. George C. Scott is a particular delight, gurning masterfully through his scenes, while in the role of the American president, Sellars’ telephone conversation with the unseen Russian premier is a masterclass in comic understatement. ‘Well, Dimitri, how do you think I feel about it?’

Showing as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Kubrick retrospective, it’s great to have a chance to reappraise this little gem on the big screen. Shot in super crisp black and white, it now clearly displays the shortcomings of its low budget combined with ‘still in their infancy’ effects – the many shots of the Flying Fortress en route to deliver its fifty megaton payload do occasionally look rather shonky and it’s hard to believe that, only three years later, Kubrick would deliver the technical milestone of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that pretty much set the bar for all special effect movies thereafter. Also, viewed through contemporary eyes, Sellars’ climactic grandstanding in the titular role of a crippled former Nazi scientist brushes a little too close to a whole host of -isms and -phobias for comfort, even if it does tickle the funny bone.

But, as I’ve said before, all films are a product of the times in which they were made and should be viewed accordingly – the parts that really work here are so luminous, so utterly compelling, they tend to outshine those bits that are starting to show their age. It’s an important film in Kubrick’s pantheon – the one that first showed that he was more than just a capable director, the one that hinted at the darkly disturbing wonders to come. Returning to it after so long away proved to be a singular delight.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney