Midnight Cowboy

 

25/06/17

Following hard on the heels of The Graduate, comes this beauty, shown as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Dustin Hoffman season. Released in the UK the year after Mike Nichols’s Oscar winner, this searing evocation of the grimy underbelly of life on the streets of New York was another of the late 60s film that fuelled my early interest in cinema. I first saw it forty-eight years ago and over the intervening period, it has lost none of its considerable powers.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight, eerily displaying the distinctive facial characteristics that his daughter, Angelina Jolie would make famous years later) is a troubled young dishwasher from the ass-end of Texas, who decides to reinvent himself as a cowboy-styled stud and travels to New York city with the intention of earning a living by seducing rich young women for money. Of course, the reality of the situation is quite different from his expectations. After what looks like an initial success, Joe ends up paying the first woman he ‘seduces;’ and things don’t improve when he meets ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), an impoverished huckster who volunteers his services as Joe’s ‘manager.’ Ratso cons money out of Joe on their first meeting, but when they meet up again, the two men move into a filthy derelict building where an uneasy alliance begins to develop.

As with The Graduate, what strikes me here is how edgy and uncompromising this film is and yet it was a huge mainstream hit, back in the day, winning three Oscars and receiving countless nominations for the performances of Voight and Hoffman. It steps fearlessly into territory that hadn’t really been seen in the cinema before, so much so that Nichols famously advised Hoffman not to take the role of Ratso, believing that it would kill his career. The evocations of Poverty Row New York are brilliantly rendered and there’s also an extended sequence set in an Andy Warhol free party that vividly depicts the burgeoning anti-establishment movement of the period. Filmed with an impartial eye by English director John Schlesinger, it expertly nails the shallow, consumer-obsessed tawdriness of America in ways that few native-born directors could hope to achieve.

Fears that the film would be exploitative are largely unfounded. The dominant theme here is the deepening relationship between the two male protagonists and how in the midst of grinding poverty, both of them are fuelled by impossible dreams. This is a triumphant film, from its hard-hitting opening to its poignant conclusion. If you get the chance to see this on the big screen, don’t let it pass you by.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Hampstead

25/06/17

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Reviewers of Hampstead are mostly unimpressed by this based-on-real-life wannabe rom-com, which tells the tale of Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant who builds a shack on Hampstead Heath, and his unlikely relationship with Emily Walker (Diane Keaton), an American widow in financial straits. Indeed, Wendy Ide, writing for The Guardian, goes so far as to call it “a ghastly faux-mance,” while Peter Bradshaw, in the same newspaper, notes ruefully that “Richard Curtis’s style of comedy drama is very difficult to imitate.” But it’s The Telegraph’s Robbie Collins who really skewers the movie with a one-star review and the acerbic observation that “Donald’s tumbledown cabin has its own well-stocked lake and an immaculate kitchen garden – when Emily pops around for a cosy diner à deux, there’s fresh salad served in a wooden bowl, grilled fish, and wine served in elegant stemware – while his vagrant’s beard is so well-conditioned it could win a prize at Crufts.” And, while my socialist leanings mean I never thought I’d side with anyone writing for this particular Tory rag, I find I just can’t argue with him.

Okay, I can argue a bit. I think the single star is a little unfair. The acting is, for the most part, really very good (Keaton and Gleeson are both extremely engaging, while Lesley Manville somehow manages to transcend her role, which is, it seems, ‘under-developed cypher, with a bit of secretly-tragic rich bitch thrown in’). The plot is nicely stitched together, holding our attention throughout. But… oh dear. This is very much an outsider’s view of poverty, a romanticised vision of the ‘authenticity’ that being poor provides. What it reminds me of most is the Noel Streatfeild novels I read as a child, which I both loved and derided, amused as I was by their privileged depiction of what it meant to be poor. “They’ve got no money,” I’d tell my mum, raising my seven-year-old eyebrows. “So they’re down to just a couple of servants, a nanny and a cook and some woman who comes in from the village now and again. And they’ve got to take in lodgers, because they’ve got this massive house. So there’re a couple of university professors and an opera singer all sharing the space. They can’t afford their places at ballet school, so they have to get scholarships.” And then we’d laugh, putting on ‘posh’ voices, and braying, “How on earth are we supposed to manage, dahling, with just a nanny and a cook?” Well, we found it funny anyway. Maybe you had to be there.

I understand the comparisons to Richard Curtis, but I think they miss something important. It’s not just that he’s better at it (funnier, more charming), but that he doesn’t pretend to be making a social point. His films are unabashedly about those who have it all: they’re frothy, unrealistic depictions of a London that doesn’t really exist, but they don’t claim to be anything else. Hampstead has pretentions toward social commentary, but it doesn’t understand its own material.

It’s not just the improbably delightful home that Donald has constructed from old windows and planks of wood, it’s Emily’s so-called money worries that make me pause for breath. “After I’ve sold the flat and paid off all the debts,” she sobs, “I’ll be left with a little bit, not much, but enough to get me something small outside London, maybe.” Enough, it turns out, to buy a sizeable beamed cottage next to a river on the outskirts of a picturesque Cotswolds village. Ah, that kind of ‘little bit.’ Poor Emily. And after all the hard work she’s never done and the jobs she’s never had. Surely she deserves more than this? (Actually, she does seem to have travelled back in time to the 1960s – well, it is outside London, so what do I expect? – maybe the property prices hark back to that time too?)

In the end, sadly, Hampstead is just a load of ill-informed nonsense, and there’s not much to be said in its defence. The true story it’s based on must have been much grimier and more interesting, and it’s a real shame we can’t get to the nub of it. The rose-tinted worldview we are presented with here is far too shallow to convey the important truths that are hinted at but never properly explored.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Graduate: 50th Anniversary Edition

23/06/17

Forty-nine years ago, at the tender age of seventeen, I watched this movie in a run-down cinema in North Wales and it absolutely blew me away. (Why not fifty years, you might ask? Well, although released in America in ’67, the film didn’t actually reach the UK, until September of the following year.) It was one of the first movies to open me up to the possibilities of what cinema could do – it was fresh, innovative and quite unlike any other film I’d seen up to that point. It was also a superb adaptation of Charles Webb’s excellent novel of the same name.

Going back to rewatch it after so long felt decidedly odd. I have aged over those intervening years; my world has changed in so many ways – and yet The Graduate remains as pristine and remarkable as it was all those years ago, like some rare insect preserved in amber.

Golden boy Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college to the family home in LA, where he feels alienated, unable to connect with his parents and their wealthy friends, who insist on throwing parties for him and telling him what a wonderful future he has ahead of him. ‘I have one word for you, Benjamin. Plastics.’ When the predatory Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Mr Braddock’s business partner makes a pass at Benjamin, he is at first horrified – but he soon rethinks his position and enters into a secretive and self-destructive affair with her. Things look set to continue in the same sorry vein until the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), comes home for a visit and everybody urges Benjamin to take her out on a date…

The first thing that strikes me about watching this again is how incredibly vibrant the film feels and how audacious it is, compared to the kind of straightforward blockbuster product we see so often now. (Lest we forget, The Graduate won Mike Nichols a best director Oscar and was nominated for a whole clutch of other awards, and yet it has all the brio and experimentation of an alternative indie picture.) Look at the scene where Benjamin and Mrs R conduct a conversation in a hotel room, switching a light on and off, so that, for a good half of the time, the audience is left looking at an almost blank screen. And look at the sequences where disparate events are brilliantly and effortlessly intercut with each other to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel. This is, quite frankly, genius. I’d also forgotten just how funny the script is. Benjamin’s hapless attempt to check quietly into a hotel room for his first assignation with Mrs R demonstrates a masterful slice of comic timing, which had me laughing out loud. Hoffman creates the first in what later proves to be a whole series of character studies, and Anne Bancroft, as the manipulative Mrs Robinson, manages to convey the sadness and desperation behind her hard-faced persona.

One last observation. The film carried an ‘R’ rating on its initial release, but now it’s sexual machinations are considered tame enough to qualify for a 12A. I’m not sure what that says about our society.

What else is there to add? Only that, if you’ve never seen it, then you should rectify that situation immediately. And if, like me, you have fond memories of the film and are worried that it might have dated badly, let me reassure you: it hasn’t dated at all. Indeed, in these conformist times, it shines like the cinematic diamond it undoubtedly is.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Death of a Salesman

20/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no doubting the power and tragic beauty of this Arthur Miller play: I remember its strength from sixth-form English lessons; even reading around the classroom, it seemed to come alive. On stage and film, I have always found it utterly compelling, a desperately sad – and sadly desperate – illumination of our times.

Okay, so the specifics are late-forties New York, but Willy Loman is an everyman, and his predicament still common to those of us who live in capitalist societies around the world.  We are sold a dream: we are in charge of our own destinies. Work hard, and you will get somewhere. Compete, and you can be the best. Buy these products; owning them will show others what you’re worth. But for Willy, the dream he’s bought in to is crumbling: he isn’t great; he’s ordinary. And he’s lost his edge. He’s a salesman who no longer sells, and corporate America spits him out. Willy is outraged to discover he’s been had, and rails against the boss that now deems him obsolete: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” But his rage is impotent: the odds are stacked against him. Howard does indeed discard him, and Willy is left bereft, forced to confront the reality that his life has been a sham. His house is small and crumbling; his children haven’t changed the world. He can’t even grow beets in his yard, for pity’s sake. And now, when he’s old and tired, he’s left frantic and worried: how can he make ends meet?

This touring production (by Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre) has a thoroughly modern feel. It’s not that the period has changed, exactly, it’s just been made less prominent. The minimalist stage, with its fizzing neon illumination – THE LAND OF THE FREE – gives an eerie sense of transience and flimsiness. Costumes are subtly contemporary in style; Howard’s voice-recorder is tiny and looks like today’s technology, but there’s no suggestion it has more than one function. Howard’s reaction to this piece of kit is illustrative too: Thom Tuck (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats as the excellent Scaramouche Jones) is delightfully brash and insensitive, showing off about how much money he’s spent on this vanity item, even as he refuses to grant Willy a living wage. “Ask your sons,” he tells Willy, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy. “Now’s no time for pride.”

Nicholas Woodeson is perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality. We are frustrated by his refusal to accept a job offer from Charley (Geff Francis), but we understand it too: Howard is wrong; Willy’s pride is all he has left. The anger that spills out of him in response to Linda’s concern is utterly convincing too: he doesn’t want her to worry about him, to prop him up because he’s down. He wants her to be impressed by him, and he’s self-aware enough to know she pities him these days. Tricia Kelly plays Linda with real heart; her anguish, although quieter, is every bit as real as her husband’s, and her epilogue speech is delivered with unbearable dignity. It makes me weep.

I think it’s the direction that makes this production so good: Abigail Graham has done a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. We know what they’re all feeling, and can’t help but empathise, even when they’re behaving as badly as they can. Indeed, George Taylor’s dysfunctional Biff is the most fully realised I have ever seen. Infidelities, theft, cruelty: none of these are hidden from our view. Because flawed people are people too, and we’re all deserving of respect.

This is a superb production of a truly great play. It’s on at the King’s until 24th June, and the tour continues elsewhere until 15th July. I urge you to try to catch it if you can.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Cucina at G & V Hotel

17/06/17

Royal Mile, Edinburgh

It was my birthday yesterday, but events conspired to prevent us from celebrating together then (Philip was working in Yorkshire while I was at home in Edinburgh). No matter: the date is only a number, and an excuse for a treat. We’re happy to postpone our pleasure for a day.

We’re lured to Cucina with another bookatable deal (seriously, they’re hard to resist), and are soon happily perusing the Star Menu, drinking our complementary Prosecco  (this is becoming a habit; if we’re not careful, we’ll start expecting a free glass of fizz wherever we go). The decor is quirky: all bright colours and modern surfaces, not as in-your-face ‘designer’ as it used to be in its Hotel Missoni days, but definitely drawing on its previous incarnation’s style. And we’re looking forward to some stylish Italian nosh.

We’re not disappointed. The bread arrives promptly, and there’s a choice (we always appreciate a choice). I opt for a pumpkin seed, while Philip takes the sun-dried tomato. Both are lovely: fresh and chewy and distinctly naughty. We accept the offer of a second slice.

For starters, I choose steamed mussels; these are served in a light tomato sauce with garlic and chilli. They’re exactly as they should be: plump and tender and as moreish as can be. Philip’s homemade conchiglie with pork ragu is also very good indeed, the pasta served al dente with just the right amount of bite, and a deliciously herby pork sauce.

Our mains are good too, although maybe not quite as impressive as the starters. Philip’s BBQ chicken comes with roast potato and spinach, and he’s really impressed with the sauce, which is sweet and densely flavoured without being all thick and sticky and overpowering the dish. My cod with Savoy cabbage, chorizo, potatoes and lemon sauce is – in the main – beautifully cooked, although I don’t eat the skin, which is soft and flabby, and not crispy as I’d like. Still, that’s hardly a meal-ruining issue, and the rest of it is mouthwateringly good.

Would we like a pudding? Of course we would. At first, I’m disappointed with my tiramisu: it’s a light, delicate frothy thing, served in a cocktail glass, all sweetness and air. I’ve been looking forward to a thick slab of marscapone and soggy sponge, and this just doesn’t tick the boxes in my head. But it tastes divine and, actually, once I’ve eaten a few mouthfuls and got down to the sponge, I’m kind of glad it’s what it is. It’s less ‘gromphy’ for sure, but it’s a better ending to the meal we’ve had. Philip has no such qualms about his pud: it’s ice-cream. Readers of this blog might not be aware that, in some circles, Philip is renowned for being the world’s second best ice-cream eater, and he’s keen to try the liquorice, cocoa and pistachio flavours on offer here. He declares them bowl-lickingly good, although he does manage to refrain from actually demonstrating this.

Our bookatable deal even includes coffee and petit fours. Okay, so the tiny pieces of biscotti we receive are somewhat underwhelming, but we’re more than pleased with what we’ve had. Even with the (extra) bottle of Prosecco we’ve consumed, this all comes in at a very reasonable £88. Not bad at all.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Ricci’s Place

16/06/17

Crossley Street, Halifax

For writerly reasons, I’m in Halifax, a town I honestly don’t think I’ve ever visited  before. I’m staying at the White Swan hotel, so I put out a Facebook call for recommendations for somewhere to eat. Ricci’s Place proves to be one minute’s walk from my hotel, so I can hardly complain that it’s inaccessible. As I walk, I can’t help reflecting that Halifax will be much nicer once it’s finished. At the moment, huge swathes of it seem to be under reconstruction and travelling any distance requires the unwary traveller to side-step cement mixers, road drills and various other items of machinery. Ricci’s Place turns out to be one of those industrial chic establishments, all stripped floorboards and neon signs. It bills itself as a ‘modern kitchen.’ It’s still early so there are only ten or twelve diners in evidence.

For starters, I choose the crispy baby squid, served with rocket, chilli, lemon and alioli. It arrives almost before I finished ordering it, as though the chefs were waiting on starting blocks. For a moment I think that they’ve mistakenly prepared a main course, because this is a very hearty portion indeed, even by my gargantuan standards. I guess the term ‘crunchy’ should have tipped me off  to the fact that the squid would be coated with something, in this case a rather bland breadcrumb affair which unfortunately serves to mask the delicate flavour of the squid itself, but the accompanying salad is nicely spiced with a powerful punch of chilli, while the alioli is very garlicky indeed and makes me fear for the olfactory safety of the schoolchildren I shall be talking with tomorrow.

For the main course, I opt for ‘lasagna with a difference,’ mostly because I’m intrigued by the name. Changing the traditional recipe? Look what happened to Jamie Oliver when he dared to tweak the ingredients for spaghetti bolognese! There were riots in the streets! There were moves to have his head served on a plate! Clearly, Ricci (if he even exists) has no reservations whatsoever about playing fast and loose with tradition. This lasagna is made with wild boar and has an intense gamey flavour. It’s layered with buffalo mozzarella, duck eggs, speck (whatever the hell that is) and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s not exactly the handsomest meal you’ve ever seen but I have to say, it’s very satisfying indeed, particularly when you have a side order of hand cut chips to mop up that spectacularly herby sauce.

Again, the hefty portion size means I struggle to finish and though the sweets sound enticing, I am sadly quite beyond sampling them, so I head out into the half-finished streets and make the long, arduous trek back to my hotel.

So, a reasonably decent starter and a very satisfying main course. If you should happen to find  yourself in Halifax, for whatever reason, (perhaps you live there!) this is a decent dining experience – something to take your mind off all that building work.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney