The Great Wall

23/02/17

The Great Wall is an American/Chinese co-production and it’s reputedly the most expensive film ever made in China. It’s plain to see where all the money went. As you might expect from Zhang Yimou, director of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this is all about spectacle, depicted on a gigantic scale. There are epic battle scenes galore and the recreation of the wall itself is absolutely jaw-dropping. A pity then, that the storyline is built on rather less robust foundations. It’s rambling, to say the least, at times quite nonsensical and it’s staggering to think that it took three screenwriters (one of them the very talented Tony Gilroy) to put it all together.

William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a couple of soldiers of fortune who have ventured deep into the wilds of China in search of the fabled black powder. (Not a hallucinogenic drug but the stuff you blow things up with). After a run-in with an unseen adversary, they are taken captive by an army who’s task it is to defend the Great Wall against the Taotie, waves of ravening lizard like beasts who for reasons best known to themselves, regenerate and attack the wall every sixty years. When the newcomers prove themselves in a skirmish against the beasts, their lives are spared and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) starts to flutter her eyelashes at William, initiating a deepening (but perfectly chaste) relationship between them. Meanwhile, another captive, Ballard, (Willem Dafoe) who has lived behind the wall for twenty five years has devised an elaborate escape plan and hopes that William and Tovar will join him…

To be honest, nobody is going to watch this for the convincing plot. If you like Zhang Yimou’s unrivalled visuals then the chances are you will find this as aesthetically thrilling as I did. But it also has to be said that brilliant though the CGI beasties are, there are simply way too many of them. Half a dozen fearsome creatures would have had way more impact than the millions that we see swarming over every battle scene. Clearly the director does not subscribe to the old adage that ‘less is more.’ And I might also add that none of the Taotie are quite as fearsome as Damon’s attempt at an English accent… at least, I think it’s meant to be English. Or possibly Irish?

An important slice of American-Chinese cooperation or a somewhat flawed attempt at a credible blockbuster? You choose.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Titanic: the Musical

21/02/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The King’s Theatre has a long and proud tradition of working with amateur companies; but it’s clear from the opening scenes of Southern Light’s production of Titanic, that we’re going to need to redefine the word ‘amateur,’ because this lavishly produced musical is certainly more assured than the term might lead you to expect. Indeed, the overall look and feel of it would give many professional companies a good run for their money.

Of course, we all know – or at least, think we know, the story of the ill-fated White Star liner which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank, resulting in the deaths of over one thousand, five hundred passengers. The story has retained its fascination ever since and little wonder, as it serves as a powerful metaphor for the world’s obsession with the class system and the symbolic end of the British Empire. It has been the inspiration for a whole clutch of novels and films- eerily, it seems, even for a book that was written in 1898, called The Wreck of the Titan, which seemed to predict everything that would happen fourteen years later.

The Southern Light Opera Company’s production fairly bristles with ambition and much like the titular vessel, it’s a colossal undertaking. At one point I counted over seventy performers on stage, moving around in perfectly synchronised choreography, their massed voices soaring in thrilling harmony. A dining room sequence in the first half had three tables full of costumed actors, being served what looked like real food by a battalion of waitresses. (I’d have loved to watch the rehearsals for that!)

As this is so much an ensemble piece, it’s hard to single out individuals for praise, though Chris MacFarlane was very impressive as ‘the Stevedore,’ and Keith Kilgore as the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, also shone. Look out too, for a sprightly performance by Judith Walker as would-be social climber, Alice Beane. The musical’s first half, when everyone is optimistic and thrilled with their voyage is by far the most enjoyable. The second half, as we know only too well, heads into darker waters, and at times the sheer impossibility of depicting such a momentous incident onstage threatens to overpower the proceedings -but I did enjoy the moving epilogue where projections of the names of the dead played across the cast as they delivered a final song.

A lot of care and attention to detail has been lavished upon this musical – and the fact that tonight’s performance is dedicated to one of the members of the cast who died just a few days ago, makes it all the more poignant. Don’t let the word ‘amateur’ put you off. This is well worth your attention and it’s on at the King’s Theatre until Saturday the 25th of February.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Founder

20/02/17

The Founder may well be the perfect film for the era of Donald Trump – it’s all about crass commercialism, overarching ambition and a multi-billion dollar empire that was founded upon so-called ‘alternative facts’ – or ‘lies’, as we might more accurately call them. Michael Keaton’s triumphantly reptilian performance personifies the very essence of the current state of America, even if this true-life tale happened more than sixty years ago.

When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton) in 1954, he’s a down-at-heel travelling salesman, riding the highways and byways of Illinois, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to the managers of drive-in diners and meeting with total indifference from everyone he approaches; so when he hears that a new burger joint has just ordered six of his machines, his interest is piqued, even though it means driving all the way to San Bernadino, California, for a closer look. There he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), two likeable entrepreneurs who have devised a new and speedier method of feeding burgers and fries to their appreciative customers.

Sensing that the brothers have unwittingly stumbled upon something that could be absolutely huge, Kroc persuades them to go into business with him, offering out the McDonald model as a franchise. But he soon discovers that the brothers have some annoying traits:  a genuine pride in their product, for instance; and a stubborn refusal to cut corners in the manufacture of any food that has their name on it. What’s more, the tiny percentage that Ray is able to rake off from each new franchise he sets up is barely enough to keep him solvent… it soon becomes clear there will have to be some changes.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a sobering story of the triumph of corporate greed over common decency. Kroc emerges as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, obsessed with furthering his own ends, horribly dismissive of his long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and transparently greedy when it comes to the acquisition of somebody to take her place – that dubious honour going to  Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a woman clearly every bit as corrupt as Kroc. It’s to Keaton’s credit that despite it all, he manages to keep us interested in the man, as we witness his callous treatment of the poor suckers whose idea he stole and made his own.

It’s hardly what you’d call pleasant viewing, but as a demonstration of what’s gone wrong with the American Dream, it succeeds on just about every level. Keaton’s classy performance is simply the icing on the cake or, if you prefer, the pickle on the burger.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

20th Century Women

18/02/17

Not so much a film about women as their life-changing influence upon one young man, 20th Century Women has the great misfortune to be released amidst a crop of bigger, more hard-hitting films, which means it isn’t really getting the degree of attention it  deserves. This is a shame as it many ways it’s one of the most remarkable releases in what has already been an exceptional year.

It’s 1979 and teenager, Jamie (an appealing performance from relative newcomer, Lucas Jade Zuman) lives in a great big crumbling house in Santa Barbara with his eccentric mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorced woman who lives by her own quirky set of values. Fearing that Jamie might be missing a father’s touch, and after he fails t0 bond with live-in handyman William (Billy Crudup), Dorothea enlists the help of two young women to help her son broaden his horizons. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s girl friend, a wayward spirit who sneaks into his room and shares his bed most nights but resolutely refuses to allow things to go any further, even though he clearly longs for more. She teaches him about friendship and the importance of looking good when you smoke a cigarette. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is the artistic lodger who has recently survived a run in with cervical cancer and who is an absolute authority on clubbing, gender theory and the importance of speaking your mind. All three women submit powerful performances that linger in the mind long after the closing credits have rolled.

The story is presented as Jamie’s memories as he looks back on the events of 1979 from some unspecified point in the future and the resulting film, written and directed by Mike Mills, has a gorgeous elegiac feel, with Jamie’s occasional voiceovers commenting on what happened then and in some cases, what will happen to the lead characters later. The cinematography helps to reinforce this feel – it’s a series of shimmering images, brilliant, evocative, almost iridescent at times. I should also add that the script is very funny in places, though nobody would describe this as a comedy – it’s a lovely, life-affirming jewel of a picture, which I would urge you to see at your earliest opportunity, before it escapes the cinemas and heads for the small screens, where it will inevitably lose some of its mesmerising power.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Moonlight

17/02/17

Moonlight is a coming-of-age movie, chronicling the life of a young black man, and the problems he faces as he tries to forge his identity in the unforgiving environs of his Miami neighbourhood.

We first meet Chiron as ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert). He is a quiet, introverted boy, preyed upon by bullies and neglected at home. Salvation comes in the unlikely form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug-dealer, who assumes a fatherly role in Little’s life, and whose softer side is a welcome nuance, so often missing from the cartoon villainy of on-screen criminals. He recognises Little’s vulnerability, and seeks to help him out: teaches him to swim, reassures the boy about his sexuality. He has a conscience too, and is clearly affected when Little’s mum (Naomie Harris) points out his responsibility for her neglectful parenting: he supplies the crack that renders her incapable. Hibbert’s performance is achingly good in this first third of the film: he doesn’t articulate his neediness, but its plain for all to see. He’s so full of hope and potential; we don’t want to witness his pain.

The second section of the film details Chiron’s teenage years, and Ashton Sanders takes over the lead role. It’s a seamless transition: this version of Chiron is less open, more furtive, but his neediness is just as naked as it ever was. He’s still being bullied, and Juan is no longer around – although he does still see Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan’s erstwhile girlfriend. He’s less confused about his sexuality, though just as incapable of expressing himself, and far too dependent on his one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It’s difficult to watch this sweet young man harden himself against the outside world; heartbreaking to see his future narrowing before our eyes.

In his third and final incarnation, Chiron – now known as ‘Black’ – is played by Trevante Rhodes. His transformation is absolute: the events of the past have shaped him in Juan’s mould – clearly, he’s chosen to emulate the strongest, most positive male role-model in his life. He’s a trapper now, selling the very drugs that blighted his own youth. But he’s still Chiron, still kind and inarticulate, still just the same inside. But he’s taken control – sort of – and he’s no longer quite so vulnerable when he meets up with Kevin again.

This is an affecting movie, a personal tale so precisely told that it shines a light on a common ill. This is not just Chiron’s story – it is the story of so many boys. It articulates everything that Chiron can not. And if the ending feels abrupt (and it does; I was startled when the credits rolled), that’s the only criticism that I have of this fine piece of work.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Hidden Figures

17/02/17

Sometimes the biggest changes in history are achieved, not with violent rebellion but with quiet tenacity. Hidden Figures tells the real life stories of three remarkable mathematicians. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson) is a mathematical genius, who from an early age could perform the most complex equations without breaking a sweat. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a natural organiser, able to turn her skills to all kinds of problems, even the complexities of an IBM computer; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a sassy young lady who dreams of one day being a fully qualified engineer.

The three of them are enlisted to work for NASA, but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose – for they are not only women, they are African-American women and this is 1962, a time when (incredibly) segregation still holds sway. They cannot share bus seats, toilets or even, as it turns out, a coffee percolator, with their white colleagues. Meanwhile, the Russians have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space and the race is on to be the first country to put an astronaut on the moon… And as John Glenn embarks on his historic flight into space, only a complex mathematic equation stands between him and disaster…

Theodore Melfi’s film skilfully captures the period detail and there’s a nicely judged performance from Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the unfortunate man charged with heading up one of the most demanding projects in history. The main focus is on Katherine Johnson, her struggles with overbearing colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and her frankly racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, making the best of a difficult role). If the film occasionally has a tendency to stray into the realms of sentimentality, so what? This is an important and significant story, and even though these middle-class struggles may seem far removed from the historic marches of the  black civil rights movement, nevertheless the actions of these pioneering women paved the way for those who followed.

This is entertaining cinema with a powerful message, anchored by three excellent performances from the lead actors.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Akva Smorgasbord

16/02/17

Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

We’re in the mood for lunch out and we’ve been promising ourselves we’ll try this smorgasbord for a while. Akva is a big, spacious, Swedish-style bar with a relaxed and friendly buzz about it. It’s pleasantly located in Fountainbridge at the top of the Union Canal, one of Edinburgh’s hidden treasures. They do a conventional menu, which we’ve sampled before, but they also offer a daily lunchtime buffet.

It’s all reassuringly simple. When you choose to ‘go smorgasbord’ you’re issued with a decently sized plate and invited to fill it from the buffet for a very reasonable £7.50. If you’re an individual with a particularly hearty appetite, another fiver will allow you to return for even more and the great thing is, you don’t have to decide straight away. (Just as well as it turns out, because even we have to admit that one plate is plenty even for seasoned diners like us).

It would take forever to list everything that’s on offer today, but the array includes smoked trout, smoked salmon, freshly sliced ham, smoked cheese and a multitude of brightly coloured salads , grilled vegetables and assorted pickles. In addition to this, there are two hot dishes – today’s choice is veggie sausage casserole and a three bean chilli, both with accompanying hot rice. There’s also a selection of breads to choose from (the black bread is particularly good). When you’re presented with such a cornucopia of delights to select from, you’ll find yourself trying a little bit of everything and that’s no bad thing, because it means that every forkful you taste is different. Though we try hard to pace ourselves we manage to devour everything on our plates in record time and feel pleasantly full, rather than stuffed.

This is a refreshingly different kind of lunch, a great choice if you’re meeting up with friends and family (particularly those hard-to-please veggie ones) and when you’re finished, you can always nip upstairs and enjoy the free-to-use ping pong table, which in my book is a great addition to any bar – or, weather allowing, why not try a walk along the canal where you can happily work of some of those calories?

Next time you’re stuck for lunch, you know where to go.

4 stars

Philip Caveney