Mortal Engines

14/12/18

A thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, the earth has been reduced to a vast wasteland in which gigantic ‘traction cities’ roam the earth in search of smaller moving towns to be devoured and converted into much-needed fuel. Most powerful amongst the travelling behemoths is ‘London,’ currently controlled by Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who, we soon discover, is a thoroughly bad egg, hellbent on appropriating what’s left of the world’s meagre resources, no matter what it takes.

When London absorbs its latest conquest, (a Bavarian hamlet, since you ask) it takes on board a masked young woman with a grudge. She is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who seeks revenge on Valentine for something that happened back in her childhood. But her assassination attempt is foiled by young Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an employee at the London museum… yes, there still is a museum, plus a rough assemblage of some of the city’s salvaged tourist attractions, all arranged higgledy-piggledy across its skyline. (It’s at moments like this when I can’t help pondering how anybody could have managed to convert a city into a Mad Max-style vehicle of such enormous scale – I mean, where did they start?  But perhaps I’m missing the point.)

When Tom and Hester find themselves expelled into the wasteland, a relationship develops – but then they become involved with the Anti Traction League, based in what’s now simply known as ‘the East’ on the far side of what just might be the Great Wall of China. The league travel in fantastic airships and are masterminded by Anna Fang (Jihae). Meanwhile Hester is being hunted by an undead creature called Shrike (voiced by Stephen Lang), who is pledged to destroy her and…

If this is starting to sound somewhat complicated, let me assure you, that it is – and that’s rather a pity because – as you’d expect from something that’s been produced by Peter Jackson – the world-building here is frankly astonishing and I can only speculate about the millions of New Zealand dollars that must have been lovingly poured into this enterprise. But, as is so often the case in films of such immense scale, the human characters are somewhat dwarfed by the process, only periodically managing to poke their heads up from the general grandeur to try and capture attention. Christian Rivers handles the directorial reins but this has Jackson’s fingerprints all over it and, not for the first time, I find myself yearning for those early low budget horrors he used to make, back in the days when he was skint.

Mortal Engines is based on a quartet of books by British fantasy author Philip Reeve. The first volume was published in 2001 and this project has been stuck in development hell for a very long time. I’d love to be able to report that it’s a great success, but something seems to have been lost in translation from book to film. While a story this complicated can work brilliantly on the printed page, it doesn’t always come through on the screen. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t worth a viewing. There’s stuff in here that will have fantasy fans enthralled. There are exciting chases, wonderful touches of invention throughout and, as I said before, it all looks good enough to eat – but sadly, that’s not enough to make this project fly as convincingly as it should.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Sorry to bother you

13/12/18

Boots Riley is a new name to me but, on the merits of this, his first feature, it’s one I expect to hear a lot more of in the near future. Sorry To Bother You is a quirky slice of satire and, in many ways, a polemic – a powerful critique of the current state of American society. Riley, who in a recent interview proudly announced that he is ‘a communist,’ clearly has a healthy distrust of big corporations and their ethos of rampant greed. He’s also more than happy to state his dissatisfaction with the situation.

The action occurs in a near-future Oakland, where a corporation called WorryFree offers workers food and board in exchange for a lifetime of unpaid servitude – and where the most popular show on TV is one where the participants are ritually humiliated and beaten to a pulp. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his Uncle’s garage, where he shares the bills with his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Constantly strapped for cash, but understandably reluctant to take the WorryFree route, Cassius seeks a post at telemarketing company, RegalView, where he is told to ‘stick to the script’ and where he will be paid a commission on every sale he makes.

At first he struggles to stop his clients from hanging up on him, but then veteran employee, Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a bit of free advice. ‘Use your white voice, bro,’ Langston urges him, ‘and things will improve.’ Cassius prevaricates for a while, but soon finds he has a real flair for impersonating a white man’s voice. It’s not long before he’s closing many profitable deals and is being groomed to take the gold elevator up to the top floor, where the ‘Power Dealers’ rule.

But when co workers, Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun) decide to form a pressure group with the intention of securing a fairer deal for RegalView’s workforce, Cassius finds himself with a difficult choice to make…

What starts as an irreverent and amusing farce takes a much darker turn when Cassius opts to ride that elevator to the top floor. Up there, he is the guest at a lavish party thrown by RegalView’s enigmatic CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who pressures him into performing a rap routine (something he has no talent for), and who then offers him a vast amount of money to head up a brand new initiative…

As I said earlier, this is a debut film and since Riley’s previous experience has been as a musician, STBY occasionally looks a little rough around the edges. There are some poorly lit nighttime sequences and occasional bits of character interplay that don’t really develop into anything – but there’s no doubting the power and passion fuelling this story. A scene where Cassius spills the beans about RegalViews secret plans only to see the companies shares go through the roof is, in the era of Donald Trump, all too believable. Stanfield and Thompson are beguiling in the lead roles and, as you might expect, there’s a powerful soundtrack to push along the action.

Slightly deranged and very, VERY original, this is the opening salvo in what could prove to be a powerful new voice in contemporary cinema. It’s well worth checking out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

12/12/18

That unwieldy title notwithstanding, this is a genuine treat. For those who are wary of watching yet another retread of a tired and over-familiar concept, let me assure you that this doesn’t so much as reinvent the franchise as grab it by the neck, tear it to pieces and start all over again. The result is one of the most exciting slices of animation I’ve seen in a long time.

Troubled teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is struggling to fit in to the straight laced Brooklyn high school where he has recently enrolled. His father, Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a New York cop, a disciplinarian and a vociferous Spider-Man critic. Miles finds himself gravitating towards his mysterious Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who is an adventurous sort, prone to bending the rules. One night, when Miles and Aaron are indulging in a graffiti-art session in a deserted stretch of subway, Miles is bitten by a robotic spider and, shortly afterwards, begins to experience major changes to his mind and body.

Understandably confused, he returns to the subway, just in time to witness regular Spider-Man villain, Kingpin (Liev Schrieber), opening up a portal to a whole series of alternate realities and, for good measure, enacting a murder that will have all staunch web-heads shrieking ‘Noooo!’  at the screen. Kingpin’s meddling with reality is an attempt to reconnect with characters from his past, but his machinations have unwittingly invited five different personifications of Spider-Man to leave their own dimensions and head for present-day New York. I won’t list the alternate Spideys in detail but suffice to say: two of them are female and one is a cartoon pig called Peter Porker. The thing is, does Miles, still coming to terms with his new abilities, have the necessary stuff to join up with them?

Phil Lord’s plot may be bat-shit crazy, but it doesn’t matter one jot because Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse careers along at such a breakneck pace there’s never any time to question the absurdity of it all. What’s more, the eye-popping animation is so extraordinary that it virtually dazzles the viewer into submission with levels of ingenuity and chutzpah rarely witnessed in this genre. There’s a whole riot of styles thrown into the mix, with individual frames freezing momentarily to do homage to veteran artists like Steve Ditko and John Romita, and more experimental sequences that break new ground entirely. It’s fabulous stuff. Oh, and  just wait till you see what they’ve done with Doctor Octopus!

Purists may not approve of some of the liberties that have been taken with the source material, but the fact is that the Spider-Man franchise has already been pretty thoroughly milked (yet another live action movie is due to land early next year), so if you’re going to slip into that distinctive red and blue outfit, you’d better have something different to offer. And believe me, this film has that in abundance.

Oh yes, and this features one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever (voiced by the man himself, of course), which, given his recent demise, makes it all the more poignant. Here he plays the owner of a cheap novelty shop, selling knock-off Spider-Man outfits and pointing to a sign that says ‘No refunds.’ Priceless.

There is only one other viewer at the afternoon screening I attend, and that’s a shame, because here’s one superhero movie that actually deserves closer investigation. Don’t let it swing over the horizon without giving it a spin.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Parx

10/12/18

Rubislaw Terrace, Aberdeen

We’re in Aberdeen for the day, and we have an hour for lunch. Parx is recommended as a friendly place, where we can eat quickly and healthily. So we walk across the road from the school in which we’re working to this little basement cafe, and grab the last remaining table. It’s clearly very popular.

It’s easy to see why. Catering to the working lunch crowd, Parx does takeout food as well, and there are many in the queue who are choosing this option. But we have the luxury of time.

Unusually, we’re not really very hungry because we’ve already had a fairly indulgent hotel breakfast, so we decide to share a meal. We opt for a slice of roasted cauliflower quiche, served with two sides for £5.95. We choose a ‘superfood salad’ (parsnip, beetroot, kale, pomegranate and feta) and a pasta salad (comprising endamame beans and other tasty greenish stuff). It’s lovely, and the quiche is generous, although the salad portions are a little on the small side.

Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either a blessing or a curse that I’m the one who goes to the counter to place the order; suffice to say, if it were Philip, we wouldn’t have a big piece of lemon cake sitting in front of us. We can’t regret my weakness though: this is excellent cake, the sponge light and fluffy, the frosting citrus sharp and not too sweet.

All in all, we’re more than satisfied. A smashing little place. If you’re in Aberdeen and you’re feeling peckish, this just might be for you.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Three Identical Strangers

 

08/12/18

Three Identical Strangers is a disturbing film, documenting the extraordinary lives of three young men, who – at the age of nineteen – discovered they were triplets, separated at birth.

The initial, heartwarming version of their tale is rather well-documented: in 1980, when they first found one another, Bobby, Eddy and David were big news. They gave countless TV interviews, and embraced their notoriety, strutting their stuff around New York, making the most of their newfound celebrity. They even scored themselves a brief appearance in Madonna’s first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and seemed to revel in each other’s company.

But there’s a darker side to their story and it’s not comfortable to watch. Because the boys and their adoptive parents were never told that they were triplets; the details of their lives were hidden from them. Why? The adoption agency Louise Wise Services contravened ethical guidelines by withholding this information; what was their motivation?

Science, it seems; or the pursuit of knowledge.

The boys were born in 1961, and nature/nurture was a hot topic. What, Dr Peter Neubauer wondered, could be learned if identical siblings were brought up in different socio-economic circumstances, or parented in contrasting ways? And how better to find out than to collude with an adoption agency, and carefully allocate twins to pre-selected families? Under the guise of monitoring the progress of adopted kids, the similarities and differences in their progress could be observed. Of course he knew he was on shaky moral ground (otherwise, he would have been more open about his plans); nevertheless, the experiment went on. He must have been delighted when the triplets were born.

After an initial third focusing on the brothers’ fairytale discovery, the film goes on to focus on the fallout, the impact on the boys and the men that they became. And it’s devastating really, the effect of Dr Neubauer’s god-complex, meddling with people’s lives to further his own interests.

The doctor himself is dead now, but his assistants’ recollections are chilling, not least because they seem so unapologetic, so unabashed about the nature of their work. The boys all went to decent families; they can’t see the damage they have wrought.

In the main, this is a compelling documentary, dispassionately told, allowing people and events to speak for themselves. I’m a little uncomfortable about the way Eddy’s adoptive father, Mr Galland,  is presented, the blame for his son’s problems laid squarely at his door. He was a strict, unemotional parent, for sure, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t love his son, didn’t try his best to do right by him. Director Tim Wardle’s partiality is on show here: he much prefers the way that David’s father, Mr Kellman, brought him up.

Still, that’s my only complaint. Otherwise, this is a shocking story, rightly – if tardily – exposed to scrutiny. Bravo to those who have worked to tell the tale; shame on those who sought to cover it up.

And good luck to the boys – and to the other twins affected by this twisted social research project, some of whom do not yet know that they have a double somewhere out there in the world.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Anna and the Apocalypse

07/12/18

Last summer, wandering around my home city in the vicinity of the Usher Hall, I came across something entirely unexpected. A strange crowd had collected in front of the building – not the usual ticket-bearing punters, queuing to see the latest concert, but a motley assortment of blood-spattered zombies, growling at me in a most disconcerting manner, while more soberly attired actors handed out inflatable candy canes.

What was it all in aid of, I wondered? One young woman informed me that they were starring in an upcoming film called Anna and the Apocalypse, a movie shot in and around Glasgow, and they were celebrating the fact that they’d just signed a distribution deal with ‘a major player.’ Their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. I took the opportunity to snap a selfie with one of the undead and went on my way.

Now, a little over six months later, the film is in the cinemas and, given my unusual introduction to it, I find myself wanting to like it a little more than I actually do. It’s by no means terrible, you understand, but this spirited mash-up of Shaun of the DeadHigh School Musical and er… White Christmas, has the ghost of those rather better films hanging over it and, try as I might, I can’t quite dispel them.

The eponymous Anna (Ella Hunt) is a self-assured teenager who feels somewhat constrained by the sleepy town of Little Haven, where she lives with her father, Tony (Mark Benton). Her mother has recently shuffled off the mortal coil and Anna is considering taking a year out before starting uni, so she can travel and see a bit more of the world. Meanwhile, she interacts with her best buddy, John (Malcolm Cumming), works part time down the local bowling alley and puts up with the caustic remarks of the snide school head, Mr Savage (Paul Kaye). And then, on the night of the high school Christmas concert, a zombie epidemic breaks out…

Of course, given the subject matter, this was always going to be compared with Shaun, but it’s particularly damning when Anna’s best scene is almost a rerun of the one where Simon Pegg’s character pays a visit to the corner shop and, in the midst of total devastation, fails to notice that anything is amiss. Still, there’s plenty to like here, despite that. The songs, by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly are catchy; Hunt (who was absolutely the best thing about The More You Ignore Me) clearly has a big cinematic future ahead of her; and this is sprightly and funny enough to keep a late-night crowd happy.

Who knows, maybe in years to come that festive theme might turn this into a cult Christmas hit – and that’s clearly the filmmakers’ intention, as they pile on the tinsel and mistletoe a little too relentlessly for comfort. I’d also like to see a few genuine scares thrown into the mixture. Though this is as bloody and visceral as the genre demands, it never really unnerves me. And, for good measure, a film shot in Scotland and funded by the Scottish Arts Council, might have worked better if there’d been a few more Scottish actors (and accents) in the mix.

Though… and I could be way off beam here… is that (an uncredited) David Tenant briefly acting the role of one of the undead?

Anyhow, Anna and the Apocalypse is a fun film and, those fancying a giggle could do a lot worse than this.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mouthpiece

 

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

When an author creates a character for a play, to whom does that character belong? The writer, yes? But what if the character is based on a living person – somebody who exists outside of the fiction? Does the author then have a responsibility to that person? And, if they change certain details of the character’s life, does that constitute a betrayal of trust?

It’s questions like this that permeate Kieran Hurley’s powerful and compelling play, Mouthpiece. As a creator of fiction myself, I find it particularly intriguing, though – judging by the intense silence in the Traverse Theatre on the evening I attend – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a struggling playwright, recently returned to her home city of Edinburgh. Once fêted as the ‘next big thing,’ she has lost her way in London and is back living with her mother, unsure of what to do next. Her unhappiness leads her up to Salisbury Crags, where, fuelled by liquor, she rashly decides to fling herself from the heights and be done with it. But she’s been observed by disaffected teenager, Declan (Lorn Macdonald), who pulls her back from the edge. Declan too is unhappy, angry with his brutish stepfather’s treatment of his mother and of the infant daughter that Declan dotes on. He has come up to the Crags to work on one of his surreal drawings, undisturbed. The last thing he needs is this kind of interruption.

Fascinated by the boy, Libby seeks him out the following day, asking if he’ll meet up with her again, ‘just to talk.’ Already, her writer’s instincts have kicked in and she is beginning to plan a new project, one in which Declan will figure prominently.

Powered by searing performances from Macintosh and Macdonald, and simply staged within a skewed rectangular frame (which seems to perfectly showcase the ‘head-movie’ evolving in Libby’s mind), Mouthpiece occasionally breaks aside from the action for Libby to deliver short lectures on how successful plays are put together – and we start to notice how the writer changes those elements of Declan’s life that don’t quite fit with her plans. Even the parts lifted directly from reality must be reshaped, restructured, the jagged edges smoothed. This is how fiction is created and, it’s clear, these observations have been arrived at through personal experience.

Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brings Libby and Declan head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax. As Declan sneeringly observes, it’s ‘all really meta.’

And, you know what? It is. And it’s wonderful to behold.

By this point I am absolutely riveted by what’s unfolding in front of me, barely daring to draw breath, in case I miss a word. Hurley has created something very special here, something that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

It’s quite simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in quite a while. Should you go and see it? Yes, I really think you should.

5 stars

Philip Caveney