Halloween

22/10/18

Talk about a daunting proposition.

‘Okay, we’re going to reboot one of the most famous horror movies of all time. We’re going to forget about the plethora of terrible sequels that have already reared their William Shatner-masked heads and we’ll bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to the role that made her famous. Oh yes, and for good measure we’ll try to ignore the fact that John Carpenter’s illustrious original is back in the cinemas, so anybody can see for themselves what made it one of the most imitated movies in cinema history.’

So, no pressure there.

The good news is that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s resulting film isn’t anything like as terrible as what has gone before. While it rarely achieves the thrills of version one, it offers some interesting twists on those classic scenes and manages to demonstrate how the horrors that Laurie Strode underwent as the world’s most ill-fated babysitter have certainly left their mark on her. There’s also a ‘twist’ that I don’t see coming, mostly because it’s so risible, but let’s pass over that.

Forty years have (quite literally) gone by since Michael Myers’ infamous killing spree in the little town of Haddonfield. Laurie Strode (Lee Curtis) has managed to survive two failed marriages and social workers removing her daughter from her care, and now lives alone in a rambling house. She seems to have mutated into a kind of suburban Sarah Connor, multi-locking all of her doors and housing a personal armoury that would take down an approaching army. She is convinced, you see,  that one day, Michael Myers will return and when he does, she wants to be ready for him. All this adds to the strain on her relationship with her now adult daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and with her teenage granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Michael is currently locked up in a secure psychiatric unit under the ministrations of Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who, perhaps unwisely, allows a couple of British podcast makers to interview  him – but, since Michael hasn’t spoken a word since his arrest, that doesn’t make for great broadcasting material.

But then an attempt is made to move Michel to a more secure unit and… well, I don’t think it’s exactly a spoiler to say that soon enough, he’s on the loose again and is in possession of that mask and some navy blue overalls. (That’s still Nick Castle wearing the outfit, by the way.) The resulting rampage manages to generate some thrills, especially in an extended sequence where Laurie hunts Michael through a dark house but, whereas in the first film ‘The Shape’ had some sense of purpose, now he just seems to want to kill indiscriminately and the resulting higher body count serves to make us care less about each successive murder. What’s more, this is a good deal more visceral than its predecessor, which – to my mind at least – also dissipates some of the tension.

But still, there’s plenty to enjoy – if that’s the right word. Lee Curtis is terrific as a once meek woman now transformed into something much more assertive and it’s lovely to hear Carpenter revisiting his most famous score, in collaboration with his son, Cody. If nothing else, this beats all those other sequels, prequels and reboots into a cocked hat, resulting in a decent horror movie that manages not to crap all over the heritage it has been handed.

Maybe now though, we might let this franchise go and admit that nobody is ever going to measure up to what we saw in 1978.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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La Table d’Yvan

18/10/18

Mas des Carrasins, St Remy de Provençe

It’s that time of year again – October half term – so we’re spending the week visiting my parents in Provençe. Mum has long been extolling the relative virtues of Groupon restaurant deals in France: unlike in the UK, where the majority of voucher options are for pizza or burger joints, here, high-end establishments regularly have tempting offers. Last year, she proved the point by taking us to Auberge de Tavel for lunch (check out our review here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2017/10/24/auberge-de-tavel/); this time, it’s dinner at Table d’Yvan, situated on the outskirts of St Remy, part of the Mas De Carrasins hotel.

It makes a strong first impression: the setting is beautiful. In the warm dusk, we walk through an immaculately tended garden area, where summer diners eat their meals. There are lemon trees, laden with fruit, numerous olive trees and surprising sculptures set between the plants. We’re inside though (it’s warm, but it’s still October) in the equally eclectic dining room, the tasteful white and silver decoration offset by bold and interesting works of contemporary art, and bright colours, skilfully arranged.

Nor does the food disappoint. This is a six course tasting menu, and our expectations are tempered by the €54 per couple price. That’s less than £25 a head, so we’re anticipating cheap ingredients artfully managed. We’re wrong. There’s nothing low-rent about this food except the price.

We start with an amuse bouche: an aubergine and mushroom patty served with a sweet potato purée. It’s delicious. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews for B & B, aubergines are the only vegetables I don’t like. But this is lovely: the patty almost meaty in its texture, and beautifully complemented by the smooth sweet potato sauce.

Next up, is a butternut squash soup with crayfish, garlic cream and bacon crumbs. The first mouthful is disappointing – it needs seasoning, I think – but then I stir in the garlic cream and the flavour is instantly transformed. Aha! I’d still like it to be a little warmer than it is, but it’s mouthwateringly good.

After that we have goat’s cheese three ways: with courgettes in a creme légére served with vegetable chips, in a raviolo with tomato and basil, and in a profiterole, the choux as crispy and flaky as any I’ve ever eaten. All three are superb.

We’re now at course four and I’m beginning to regret accepting a bread roll with the soup, even through the bread (I chose wholemeal from a basket of six different types) was fresh and warm and perfectly baked. But this is no dainty tasting portion, it’s a full sized meal of guinea fowl served with polenta chips, chard and a rich jus. And I’m running out of superlatives too; everything here is so damned fine. I don’t think I’ve eaten guinea fowl before, but it’s definitely on my radar now, and I intend to have it again. It’s marvellous, rich yet delicate, all soft meat and crispy skin. Aah. Even the memory makes me hungry!

Thank goodness the fifth course is a modest one: more goat’s cheese, which I think might be a misstep when I read it on the menu but, in reality, it works really well. This time it’s two simple slices of fresh cheese, mildly flavoured and very subtle – a palate cleanser, if you like.

And then there’s pudding: a raspberry mousse served between two biscuits with a scattering of fresh raspberries, a scoop of sorbet and a thin strip of raspberry jelly meticulously laid across the top biscuit. There’s a raspberry coulis too, and it’s as sweet and sharp and sumptuous as anyone could wish.

We’re delighted. Everything has been beautifully presented. It’s pretty food with robust flavours. We feel spoiled and indulged. We’ve shared a carafe of fruity sauvignon blanc, and enjoyed a relaxed evening with my mum and dad, who are always lovely, lively company. What’s not to like?

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

22 July

18/10/18

Since his sterling work on the Jason Bourne franchise, Paul Greengrass has earned a reputation as a master of the action movie but, in 22 July, he pursues a more thoughtful and measured approach to this true life horror story.

In July 2011, white supremicist Anders Breivik, enacted a horrible crime, detonating a bomb in Oslo and, shortly afterwards, travelling to Utøya island to hunt down and kill members of the Norwegian Labour party’s youth league, who were attending a summer camp there. Heavily armed and disguised as a police officer, Breivik killed more than seventy people, most of them teenagers.

Although Greengrass depicts these events in unflinching detail, they only comprise the first third of the film. He then moves beyond the tragedy to focus on young survivor, Viljar Hansen (Jonas Strand Gravil), who, despite being horribly injured in the attack, devotes himself to recovering enough to be able to confront Breivik (chillingly portrayed by  Anders Danielsen Lie) in court. Hansen’s achievement is astonishing and turns what could have been a profoundly depressing film into something more important, more life affirming.

What really impresses here is Norway’s even-handed approach to Breivik’s crime, refusing to ‘monster’ him and treating him with the kind of dignity and fairness that he denied his victims. I particularly like Jon Oigarden’s masterful performance as lawyer, Geir Lippestad, the man who was handed the poisoned chalice of having to defend Breveik in court.

This film is a Netflix Original, so it’s there to be watched whenever you’re ready for it, but be warned, it does feature scenes that some will find distressing. Neverthless, its observations about the rise of right wing politics in Norway (and indeed the world in general) is an important and affecting story that’s well worth investigation.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Cyrano de Bergerac

13/10/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Since its debut in 1897, Edmond Rostand’s most celebrated play has seen many reboots, reimaginings and reinterpretations – perhaps most unusually in Steve Martin’s 1980s movie, Roxanne, which pitched the American comedian as the head of a fire station, opposite cinematic newcomer Darryl Hannah – and of course, many will remember a more traditional movie version of the tale starring a never-better Gerard Depardieu.

This co-production with The National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, directed by Dominic Hill, is a revival of Edwin Morgan’s 1992 translation, which envisions Rostand’s celebrated hero as a Glaswegian, complete with unflinchingly authentic dialect. Why? Well, Morgan felt the character of swashbuckling soldier-poet Cyrano was perfectly suited for such a transformation, and who am I to argue with him? Ihave to confess though, that it takes me a little while to adjust to this particular aspect. Despite living in Scotland for over two years, some of Brian Ferguson’s earlier utterances in the leading role are initially hard for me to decipher, something that isn’t helped by the huge false nose he’s obliged to wear. However, as I gradually adjust to that undiluted accent, so I begin to warm to the character and there’s no denying that Ferguson’s performance here is a veritable tour de force, as Cyrano jokes, swaggers and bellows his way through the proceedings, barely offstage for more than a few moments at a time. One can only wonder if his voice will hold up to such a battering.

Of course, the central premise of this story is one of unrequited love. Cyrano is madly in love with his cousin, Roxane (Jessica Hardwick), but she has eyes only for the handsome Christian (Scott Mackie), the new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment. She begs Cyrano to help her win the newcomer’s heart. So besotted is Cyrano that he is powerless to resist her entreaties and so pledges to do his level best to help her achieve her aims. Christian, of course, is a plain speaking sort of fellow, so Cyrano uses his poet’s intellect to open a series of heartfelt letters to Roxane, passing off his own devotion as Christian’s. The deceit works like a charm, but of course, tragedy is always waiting in the wings to throw a well-timed spanner into the works.

This rumbustious production has much to recommend it, not least the spectacular set designs of Tom Piper and Pam Hogg’s eye-catching costumes, which combine traditional elements with an irreverent dash of punk rock. There are live musicians onstage throughout the proceedings, that infamous ‘nose-insults’ routine is delivered into a microphone in standup style and there’s a beautifully executed sword fight to help to keep the action flowing.

But there’s no denying that this is a long play, a full three hours in the telling – and, with most of the most memorable scenes occurring in the first half, it feels as though a little judicious editing in the second would make this feel a wee bit more fleet-footed. See this for Ferguson’s barnstorming performance and for those audacious costume designs. And whatever you do, don’t mention the size of Cyrano’s nose. He’s touchy about that kind of thing.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Arctic Oil

11/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ella (Neshla Kaplan) is a committed environmental activist, currently stranded on the remote Scottish island where she grew up. She and her infant son have been living near her widowed mother, Margret (Jennifer Black) and she has been going stir crazy. So, under the pretext of visiting London to attend a friend’s wedding, Ella has covertly planned to head off to an Arctic oil rig to join a team of activists in a potentially dangerous protest, leaving Margret to babysit her grandson. But Ella has underestimated Margaret, who is wise to her daughter’s plan and determined to keep her out of harm’s way. With this in mind, she lures Ella into the bathroom of the family home, then promptly locks the door and swallows the key.

What follows is a tightly constructed two-hander as mother and daughter argue, debate the future of the planet and uncover old grievances. Margret is quick to point out that the island on which they live is dependent on oil company investment. The industry provided work for her late husband, when he was in dire financial straits; and besides, instead of trying to change hearts and minds, shouldn’t Ella be more concerned with being a responsible mother to her son?

For Ella, it’s all about the future of that son and the doomed planet on which he’ll be expected to exist. It’s about the destruction of one of the world’s last true wildernesses, the inexorable rise of global warming  – and the fact that if nobody takes a stand on this issue now, then its all headed for hell in a hand basket.

There are two strong performances here and, apart from a  few nitpicks – would news of what’s happened to the oil rig protesters reach the mainstream media quite as promptly as it does, for example – Clare Duffy delivers a prescient tale that raises plenty of important questions. Gareth Nichols directs with a sure hand and I love the ingenious set, designed by Nichols and Kevin McCallum, which is built to withstand the onslaught of Ella’s rigorous attempts to kick her way through that locked door.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is all questions and precious few answers, but it’s nonetheless a thoughtful piece, which arrives at a time when the world has been publicly warned of the dire consequences of global warming. But, at its heart, this is far more about the mother-daughter relationship, and the love that underpins all their differences.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

10/10/18

There’s no way around it. I’m getting old.

Of course, I kind of already know that but, lately, a series of cinematic arrows have been whizzing in out of the blue, as if to remind me of the fact. Apparently, it’s been twenty years since The Big Lebowski. Hell, it’s been thirty since Repo Man! And now, somehow, John Carpenter’s Halloween is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Can this be right? I mean, for God’s sake, I remember seeing it for the first time so vividly. It was back in… yep, sure enough. It was in 1978.

I saw it at the Odeon in Gants Hill. I was twenty-seven years old, my first novel had been published a year earlier, and I was just getting settled into my long and heady love affair with cinema. I’d read a review in New Musical Express that seemed to suggest that this low-budget horror movie was something worth catching up with.

Which turned out to be an understatement. Halloween blew me away.

It’s still one of most successful independent films of all time and certainly the most imitated, initiating a whole cavalcade of We-Know-What-Your-Babysitter-Did-on-Friday-the-Thirteenth pretenders, none of which have the wit or sophistication of the original, and all of which make the cardinal mistake of substituting gore for suspense. Even the eight or more sequels that came trotting gamely along in the film’s wake fail to measure up to their illustrious progenitor. (Okay, so I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Halloween 3, but only because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the source story.)

Halloween starts on October 31st 1963, when six-year-old Michael Myers takes his trick-or-treating a little too seriously and kills his sister. We cut to 1978, when Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sees an adult Michael escape from the institution where he’s been held ever since that fateful night. Loomis heads off in hot pursuit, knowing where Michael will inevitably be headed: his home town of Haddonfield, just in time to celebrate his favourite night of the year, and where he has some unfinished business. There, young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends, Annie (Nancy Loomis) and Lynda (PJ Soles), are about to experience the longest and most traumatic babysitting session of their lives.

Even after all these years, the film holds up superbly (although, now transferred to digital, Dean Cundy’s gleaming Panavision widescreen shots have lost a little of their brio. What I wouldn’t give to see it projected on celluloid again!). But that’s really my only quibble. Carpenter’s no-nonsense direction is still exactly what’s needed and, if some of the tropes now seem predictable, you have to remember that in 1978, we were seeing them for the first time ever. Those voyeuristic steadicam shots along deserted streets; the perfectly timed jump-scares; the killer who seems to be dead but just won’t stop moving – oh, and of course there’s Carpenter’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring that theme tune, the same one that now, converted to a ringtone/alarm, wakes me every morning of my life. Yes, that’s how much I adore this film.

Interestingly, we’re only days away from David Gordon Green’s reboot of the same name, which is ditching all of those dodgy sequels and picking up forty years after the events of the first film. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the role of Laurie Strode, who has, apparently, been waiting for Michael’s return all these years. Will it be in the same league? Or even close? I seriously doubt it, but I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

For my money, Halloween may just qualify as the greatest horror movie of all time – it’s certainly in my top five. If it comes to a cinema near you, grab the opportunity to watch it again on the big screen – which, as Carpenter observes in the preceding interview, is easily the best way to see it.

Oh yes, one other thing. In 1984, I interviewed Nick Castle for his film, The Last Starfighter. In Halloween, Castle plays Michael Myers, the deadly presence behind that creepy William Shatner mask. When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the man. A thought flashed through my mind. I am shaking hands with ‘The Shape.’

Some things you never forget.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield