Colossal

22/05/17

To say that Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is unusual would be something of an understatement; as an indie slacker-flick about a kooky American woman and, um, a rampaging monster in South Korea, it is a genre-defying delight, and certainly the most original film I’ve seen in a long while.

Anne Hathaway stars as kooky woman, Gloria, whose life is spiralling out of control. She’s lost her job and she’s drinking too much, and her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), is getting sick of her. Hathaway aces the role; she’s convincingly shambolic without being a complete wastrel. It’s easy to relate to Gloria.

When self-righteous Tim decides – self-righteously – that enough is enough, he kicks Gloria out of their New York apartment, and she returns to her childhood home. The house is empty, pending rental: her parents have moved away. And so she is alone, taking stock, and revisiting her past.

When she bumps into her old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), things start to look up. He offers her a job in his bar, and they hang out together after hours, drinking and catching up. Okay, so it’s a drifting, going-nowhere lifestyle choice, but it’s not so bad. They like each other. They’re having fun.

But Gloria’s chilled-out demeanour masks a growing anger deep inside. Old memories are resurfacing, and the booze can only blot them out for so long. When she sees news footage of a strange monster attacking Seoul, she’s appalled. And even more so when she realises that the monster is a part of her, unleashed upon the unwitting citizens of a city far away. She has to learn to control – rather than suppress – her rage, if she wants to stop its destructive manifestation.

I know, it sounds bonkers. And it is. It’s also bleakly funny and startlingly profound. Sudeikis’s performance as Oscar is beautifully nuanced, his sly abusive disposition gradually revealed. He’s the real monster: an angry, bitter robot of a man, used to controlling those around him. Gloria can only beat him by cutting him down to size – and there’s only one way she can do that. The monster is her twin, her Hyde, her Frankenstein. She has to own it, subvert it to her will.

Oh, look, I could go on for ages here. I found this whole film fascinating. A real gem. Go on, watch it.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

20/05/17

Oh dear. The relatively low key advance publicity for this has already led me to suspect that all might not be well in the King Arthur camp, and now there’s word that it has under-performed badly in the USA, making it Warner Brothers’ most expensive flop in a long time. While it’s very easy to be wise after the event, it’s pretty clear from a single viewing that the film’s major problem is the director’s inability to stick within a chosen genre.

It opens in full Lord of the Rings mode as the evil sorcerer, Mordred (Rob Knighton), launches an all-out attack on Camelot, complete with thousands of troops and several giant battle elephants. It’s clear at a glance where most of the film’s massive budget has been spent. Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) uses his magical sword Excalibur to defeat Mordred, but he is unaware that his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), is in league with the forces of darkness (those constant nosebleeds should have been a dead giveaway). Vortigern kills Uther and his wife, but their infant son Arthur, escapes in a boat and drifts downstream to Londinium, where he is adopted by a prostitute and grows up in a brothel. Next, we are treated to one of those montage sequences that director Guy Ritchie is so fond of, depicting the little boy’s eventful passage to manhood, which naturally involves plenty of bare knuckle fighting; some martial arts training, courtesy of resident king fu expert, George (Tom Wu); and a fondness for making money. Pretty soon the boy has grown up to be Charlie Hunnam and we’re in a different kind of movie altogether.

Now it’s Lock Stock and One Flaming Broadsword as Arthur interacts with his crew, all of whom talk like they’re in a contemporary cockney gangster movie and most of whom rejoice under comedy names – Wet Stick, Back Lack and Mischief John to name but three. At this point, Arthur is a bit of a Dark Ages Arthur Daly, wheeling and dealing with the Viking oppressors and steering well clear of ‘The Blacklegs,’ who are Vortigern’s men. But of course, it’s only a matter of time before Excalibur rears its handsome hilt, when it is discovered protruding from a block of stone. If Vortigern had any sense, he’d have hidden it but instead, desperate to locate his brother’s missing son, he insists that every man in the kingdom must attempt to wield the sword, a ceremony which is presided over by a Blackleg called Trigger (David Beckham, in a mercifully brief cameo). The rest is, of course, legend…

But Ritchie seems incapable of keeping the good ship Excalibur on a steady course. One moment Arthur and his posse are being diamond geezers, the next Vortigern is communing with some slimy creatures from the bottom of an underground pond, and then Arthur is having visions under the influence of ‘The Mage’ (Astrid Berges Frisbey, nabbing what amounts to pretty much the only half-decent role for a woman in the entire film). A scene where Arthur and his gang are planning to sneak into Camelot could have stepped straight out of a contemporary heist movie, and yet, for the finale, we’re back to epic fantasy again as Vortigern takes on the guise of a giant warrior, looking to eliminate his only challenger for the throne of England.

To be fair, the film has a few memorable scenes – there’s a lovely sequence featuring the Lady of the Lake and there’s no doubting the majesty of that opening battle. But overall, this is too scattershot to be convincing. As for Hunnam (last seen as Sir Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z), well, he makes a decent fist of his starring role, but sadly he’s battling more than just his onscreen adversaries in this one.

Ritchie has pitched Legend of the Sword as the first of a four-part series, but judging by this opening salvo, I’m hoping (to paraphrase a line from Love and Death) that he hasn’t already put a down payment on the battlefield.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18/05/17

Edward Albee’s 1962 play was famously adapted as a movie in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The role of Martha is widely considered Taylor’s best onscreen performance, so it’s a tough act to follow – and perhaps, on paper, Imelda Staunton is an unlikely candidate for the role. But never underestimate her. She is an absolute revelation in this National Theatre production, beamed out live to cinemas across the UK. These screenings are a wonderful (and more affordable) way for people outside London to gain access to the very best of theatre.

George (Conleth Hill, best known for Game of Thrones) is an associate Professor of History at an American University, a man who feels that he hasn’t really achieved his life’s ambitions. This belief is constantly reinforced by his hard-drinking wife, Martha (Staunton), who seems to delight in reminding him of his failures at every given opportunity. The events of this three hour play unfold over one night, after a party at the faculty. George and Martha are already well-oiled when they arrive home and George is dismayed to discover that Martha has invited a young couple back ‘for drinks.’ They are a young biology professor, Nick (a barely recognisable Luke Treadaway) and his ditzy wife, Honey (Imogen Poots). Given the gladiatorial nature of the host couple’s conversation before the guests arrive, it’s clear that we are in for a bumpy ride… and as the drinks flow and inhibitions are increasingly broken down, the deepest secrets of everyone present are pulled out and ripped to shreds.

This is an incendiary, vitriolic drama, often wickedly funny but ultimately heart-breaking. Staunton’s extraordinary performance is perfectly matched by Hill’s dry, acerbic turn as George; indeed many of the play’s funniest moments are his, most tellingly the scene where he immerses himself in a favourite history book, while Martha and Nick cavort unabashedly just behind him. The other two actors may have somewhat less to do, but they make the most of what they’ve been given.

It’s a while since I’ve seen this performed and I was astonished at the similarities between this and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which came along more than a decade later. In both plays, an ambitious male character is pushed to the very age by an unforgiving wife. In both plays, we laugh at the resulting humiliation, only to have that laughter snatched away by the misery of the conclusion.

This was a one night only screening, so if you really want to see this show, you’ll need to head down to ‘that London’ where it’s currently showing  at the Harold Pinter theatre.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jane Eyre

15/05/17

When it comes to adapting a work of classic fiction, there are basically two ways you can go. You can opt to be as faithful to the original as possible, depicting it scene by scene, or you can bend the rules somewhat and come at it from an entirely different direction. In the case of The National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, they haven’t so much bent the rules as torn up the book and started over – and yet, I’ve rarely seen the spirit of a story captured quite as convincingly as this.

Susan has already seen the play – during a brief visit to London – and she came back raving about it (https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/10/04/jane-eyre/), so I was delighted when I heard that it was going out on tour. Now I can absolutely understand what she was so enthused about. This is a powerful production that eschews the straightforward plod of earlier adaptations in favour of a nimble, expressionistic approach, where the performers hurtle back and forth across the stylised set, climbing ladders, descending staircases and barely pausing to draw breath. They manage to pull the audience in and carry them along for the ride.

It’s probably pointless to recount the particulars of such a famous story. Suffice to say that Jane (Nadia Clifford)’s birth, abandonment and adoption are dealt with visually in a matter of minutes. Her subsequent coach journey is depicted in a simple but totally convincing manner and, despite the fact that the actors switch effortlessly from character to character throughout the play (Paul Mundall even portrays Rochester’s dog, Pilot!), we are never at a loss as to who is who at any given moment – even when Jane’s thoughts manifest themselves in human form, asking her difficult questions at pivotal moments in the proceedings.

While this is not exactly a musical, it is a play with music, and it is integral to the show. The musicians are onstage at all time and Bertha (Melanie Marshall), a formidable presence in a bright red dress, delivers a series of haunting songs, including the most original version of Gnarls Barclay’s Crazy that I’ve ever heard. Clifford succeeds in conveying Jane’s fieriness (something that earlier adaptations have missed entirely), and Tim Delap’s Rochester is also impressive, a brusque hulking presence, who literally towers over Clifford’s ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ form as they converse. Anyone worried that the limitations of a stage might rob the story of its climactic scene – the fire – need have no worries on that score. It’s right there and is utterly convincing.

If you can get a ticket for this then I would urge you to do so. It’s one of the most convincing literary adaptations I’ve ever seen, an absolute must-see.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

La Cantina

13/05/17

Heaton Moor, Stockport

We are back in our old stamping ground and meeting friends for dinner, so it’s all good. Back in the day, of course, the logical choice would have been Steve Pilling’s Damson, a fine-dining venue that – in our humble opinion – was up there with the very best of them. But sadly, it is no more and, in its place, Steve has established not one but two new venues: Roost, a rotisserie chicken and wood-fired pizza place, and La Cantina, a tapas bar – and it’s the latter that we have chosen to visit tonight.

It’s Saturday around 7pm and the joint is busy. There’s a lively, rustic feel to the place. You cannot book seats here but, luckily, our friends have got here early enough to commandeer a table for four, so we’ve no worries on that score. We are able to enjoy a drink (Estrella Dam on draught!) and some conversation while we peruse the menu, also taking notice of the specials chalked on a board above our heads. Tapas selections cost from £4 to £6 each and we go ahead and order. The service is fast and, considering how busy the place is, really well organised. Okay, so this isn’t going to be in the same league as Damson, but clearly it’s not meant to be. This is somewhere to enjoy a drink and a tasty nibble with friends and, on that score, it succeeds.

The food is uniformly good – a grilled squid dish is particularly delicious: lemony, peppery and just chewy enough, a whole beastie served with crispy tentacles. Yum. All the usual suspects are here – a nicely spicy patatas bravas; boquerones that are fish to the power of fish; a vibrant pork and chorizo stew; a decent paella (which is also available as a takeaway from a van parked just by the entrance). But I should perhaps point out that the portions are, well, tapas-sized. Those who possess a hearty appetite (and I would proudly include myself amidst that splendid horde) may want to ensure that they select several portions apiece if they want to be sure to fully quell the hunger within.

So, come to La Cantina for boozy good times. Damson may be done and dusted but this is the perfect place to catch up with old friends – and, judging by the crowd tonight, it’s already a roaring success – so much so that another la Cantina has just opened in neighbouring Didsbury. It’s almost as though Steve actually knows what he’s doing…

As for Roost, we’ll have to leave that until the next time we’re on ‘the Moor.’

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Alien: Covenant

13/05/17

Prometheus was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent years. After several underwhelming Alien sequels, fans of the series were eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the world that he originated in 1979, but what we actually got was some distance away from that premise – perhaps a few steps too far. So Covenant is very much Scott’s attempts to make amends for that misstep and to some degree, he’s been successful in his ambitions – even if too much of the film riffs on earlier ideas. Oddly, this one feels closer to James Cameron’s brilliant second instalment, Aliens – which Scott still feels was arranged ‘behind his back.’

This film is set ten years after Prometheus and the colony ship Covenant is making its way towards a new planet where the passengers hope to start a whole new world. While the crew are deep in hyper sleep, the day-to-day running of the ship is left to ‘synthetic’ Walter (Michael Fassbender). But an unexpected incident means that the crew are woken seven years too early and, even worse there are a couple of fatalities – including the Captain, the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) isn’t exactly relishing the idea of getting back into those unreliable pods, so when the crew happen upon an inexplicable signal issuing from what appears to be a nearby habitable planet, he feels it’s worth going in to investigate…

Sound familiar? Well, yes, very. Pretty soon an advance party are making a landing on the planet and realising that it really isn’t a safe place to try and make a new home – and Walter meets an earlier model of himself, David, who has been surviving alone on the planet since the events of Prometheus. But can the advance party make it back to their spaceship alive?

Ridley Scott’s films are nearly always good to look at and he manages to crank up enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat through much of this. The planet locations are beautifully set up, Waterstone steps gamely into Ellen Ripley’s boots and there are enough chest-bursters, face-huggers and Xenomorphs to keep the fans happy. There’s also an interesting trope set up between caring, artful David and his cooler, less compassionate successor, Walter. I’m delighted to see that the project has finally gone back to the designs of creature-creator H.R. Giger for its look. But there remains the conviction that we’re simply revisiting territory that has already been well and truly trodden flat. The news that Scott is planning to expand the Alien universe with another three films does not exactly fill me with excitement. He’s done what he should have done last time out. Surely now, he should let this idea rest and move on with his many other projects. After all, at 79, who knows how many more he will achieve?

For my money, Alien: Covenant would make a decent swan song for the franchise. Leave it, Ridley. Step away from the franchise. There’s nothing new to see here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mikado

09/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are undoubtedly very good indeed: we saw and enjoyed HMS Pinafore last year at the Lowry, and tonight’s Mikado is equally assured. The conceit is similar: in Pinafore the men were sailors, performing to entertain themselves, this time they are boy scouts, play-acting in the woods – and thus the lack of women is explained. But is it justified?

In some ways: yes. The performances are uniformly strong, and the direction is sprightly and engaging. The set design (by Ryan Dawson Laight) is delightful, evoking a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like sense of magical unreality. It’s fun and it’s funny, accessible and entertaining. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

But it’s an odd thing to do, isn’t it? There are few enough parts for female actors, without appropriating those that do exist. Sasha Regan’s assertion that “the fact that we have men dressed as women is silly enough” doesn’t really tell us anything. Of course, there is a fine tradition of drag on the British stage, but I have to confess I’m not convinced it serves much purpose here.

Still, despite this reservation, there is much to admire. Alan Richardson’s portrayal of Yum-Yum is really rather lovely, while David McKechnie’s Ko-Ko is the comedic highlight of the piece. Richard Baker’s piano is faultless – I’ll never cease to be impressed by a one-person musical accompaniment to shows as demanding as these.

In short, this is a high quality piece, with commendable production values. I can’t pretend the all-male cast isn’t a problematic idea, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is excellent theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield