Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Wedgwood at Home

24/05/20

wedgwoodtherestaurant.co.uk

It’s Week Ten in the Year of Our Lockdown, and I am missing eating out. I love the whole restaurant experience: the theatre, the bustle. But, if that’s not available, I’ll settle for just the food.

Like many establishments across the country, the normally premises-bound Wedgwood Restaurant (Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh) is offering a takeaway service at the moment: a three course meal for £22. This is a ‘cook at home’ menu and, to be honest, there’s a little bit too much cooking involved: we have to write down the timings so we don’t mess it up, and it doesn’t feel very relaxing. Maybe it would work better if we had an open-plan kitchen-diner, but we don’t, so we’re scuttling between the table and the stove, conversations left hanging or shouted between two rooms.

Still, the food is very good, and the evening does feel special.

To start, Philip has a smoked salmon and dill paté, which is served with crumbed oatcake, blistered tomatoes, baby gem and toast. The paté has a pleasant citrusy flavour, but there’s a lot of it and not much toast. I have roast cauliflower velouté with a coriander and cashew crumb and red pepper oil. It’s lovely: a creamy, indulgent delight.

My main is roast smoked mackerel, with a spring onion and black olive potato cake, green beans and a chorizo hollandaise. It’s perfectly judged, the intensely flavoured fish well complemented by the robustness of the olives and chorizo. Philip has a lemon and thyme scented confit chicken leg with braised fennel, lentils and a gorgeously shiny honey and grain mustard jus. The whole meal is delicious, but it’s the jus that makes it.

We add in our own cheese course, because we want to, because this is our ‘date night’ and we want it to last. We have a subscription to Pong cheese, so we share three small pieces, with some onion chutney and home-made crackers.

Then pudding. We share a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and a dark chocolate brownie with milk chocolate cremeaux, white chocolate and sweet cicely pesto and raspberries. This final course is the winner: every mouthful feels like a treat. It’s sticky and sweet and wonderful.

Wedgwood offer wine with their menu, but we have laid in a good stock from Majestic, so we open a bottle (okay, two) of Chenin Blanc (La Baume de La Grande Oliviette), and enjoy.

And, all in all, for a night in, this is pretty good.

But I’d still prefer a night out. Without the washing up.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

From Up On Poppy Hill

20/05/20

Netflix

In these troubled times, isn’t it great to have something dependable to tune in to? Looking through the crop of Studio Ghibli animations on Netflix, we find another one we failed to catch on its release. From Up on Poppy Hill first graced screens in 2011. It’s scripted by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki, directed by his son, Gorô, and is set in the early 60s, when Japan was readying itself to host the Olympic Games. Unlike many Ghibli films, the setting (Yokohama) is authentically Japanese in just abut every detail.

Predictably, the story focuses on a plucky teenage girl. Umi (Masami Nagasawa) is a hardworking sixteen-year-old. Her father died during the Korean war and her mother, a medical professor, is away studying in America. So Umi is helping to run the family’s boarding house, cooking and cleaning whenever she’s not attending High School. It’s here that she first encounters, Shun (Jun’chi Okada), a fellow student. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have an attraction.  Shun is an enthusiastic supporter of the school’s club house, the Quartier Latin, where various societies pursue their myriad interests. When the shabby old building where everything happens is threatened with demolition, Umi and Shun work together to try and avert disaster and, inevitably, their relationship deepens.

But a series of tragic events that occurred during the Korean war threatens to destroy any chance of a relationship between them…

This may not be one of Ghibli’s big-hitters but it’s nonetheless an appealing tale, sensitively told – and, as ever with this studio, the magic is all in the detail. There are some truly breathtaking images here, particularly in the depictions of the city at night; I especially enjoy a delightful extended sequence that begins just before twilight and effortlessly moves through a ravishing sunset and into the evening.

It’s true that the story’s resolution provides no great surprises but I like the realism of it, and the emotional clarity of the storytelling.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Platform

17/04/20

Netflix

It’s surely just a horrible coincidence that this Spanish dystopian drama, directed by Glader Gaztelu-Urrutia and written by David Desola, has its release in the midst of a global pandemic. But its storyline – a somewhat heavyhanded parable about the world and the way in which it consistently fails to fairly share out its considerable resources –  couldn’t have felt more prescient at any time than it does now. Think about it for a moment. People confined to one space, where their daily meal takes on an-powerful ritualistic quality, and where the diners are dependent on those above them to dole out their only means of day-to-day survival. Sound familiar?

Goreng (Ivan Massagué) wakes up in a cell. He’s in a place called The Hole, a ‘vertical self-management centre.’ He’s actually volunteered to come here and will receive some kind of work-related diploma if he manages to stick it out for six months. Go Goreng! His older cellmate, Trimgasi (Zorion Eguileor) is serving a year for manslaughter and, to add to Goreng’s problems, he’s not much of a conversationalist. Goreng cannot help but notice that there are other cells above him and many, many more below, all of them linked by an oblong vertical shaft. After much prompting, Trimagasi fills him in on how the place works.

Every day, a sumptuous feast is prepared by a battalion of chefs at the top of the tower and is carefully laid out on the titular platform. This is then lowered slowly down the shaft, pausing briefly at every level. The inmates of each cell then have a short space of time to eat what they can, before whatever’s left is lowered to the next set of diners… and the next…. and the next. Inmates can only take what they can eat immediately – any attempt to keep something back is brutally dealt with.

Trimagasi explains that there are reputed to be two hundred levels in the tower and that they are currently on level 48 – a relatively decent place to be – but, at the end of each month, they will be relocated to a new cell and there’s no knowing if they will be moved upwards or downwards. On the lower levels, of course, survival is much more difficult and cannibalism is rife. There are other things to worry about. Even on the higher levels there are suicides, murders and the occasional problem of people voiding their bowels onto those below them.

Each inmate is allowed to bring one luxury with them. Goreng has chosen a book, The Adventures of Don Quixote, which he has always meant to read. More worryingly, Trimagasi has opted for a self-sharpening knife…

It probably goes without saying that those looking for a lighthearted romp to ease them through the misery of lockdown may want to steer well clear of this one. There’s no denying that The Platform is sometimes a hard watch, a dark, brutal tale, garnished with lashings of gore and served up with a side-order of wince-inducing violence. While its message is doubtless well-intentioned, (and undeniably true) it is rather one-note in its approach. While initially compelling, it struggles to hold the attention in the latter stages of its relatively short 94 minute run and, as events lurch bloodily into the final furlong, fails to bring any new flavours to the mix.

Still, this is memorable stuff and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in a while. Who knows, in happer times, I might well have enjoyed it – if that’s the right word – considerably more than I actually do. Perhaps I just have too much on my mind.

Now… what are we having for dinner tonight?

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Bravo Figaro

14/05/20

Go Faster Stripe and Traverse Theatre

Mark Thomas is always a delight to watch: standup, storyteller, activist – all of these terms can be applied to him and all seem to fit perfectly. We missed Bravo Figaro at last year’s festival, so this seems like a welcome addition to our lockdown entertainment options, streaming live on YouTube for just £5, with a percentage of ticket purchases going to the Traverse theatre.

Business is pretty much as usual here, as Thomas ambles onto a sparsely furnished stage and begins to unfold the story of his father, Colin, a hardworking family man, a builder by trade who, unusually for a working class chap, developed a fervent passion for opera. Thomas pulls no punches in his depiction of a man who was never slow in using his own fists when angered and who clearly ruled his wife and chidren with a rod of iron. But, when he was stricken by a rare form of degenerative illness, Colin became a shadow of the man he used to be – and his son had to look for ways in which he might remind his father of the things that used to motivate him.

This clever and moving story, draws a compelling narrative, interspersed with occasional recorded pieces featuring the voices of his parents in conversation.

It’s testament to Thomas’s considerable skill as a raconteur that he manages to flit effortlessly in and out of the various scenes, between genuinely funny observations and heartwrenching moments of realisation. Not everything here quite hits home as surely as it might, for example, a brief passage where he explains to the younger people in the audience what vinyl is seems like a misstep – they are the hipster generation, after all.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a charming and perceptive piece, that provides an excellent way to fill an hour of lockdown. I look forward to seeing him again, preferrably in a packed theatre, with the laughter of others ringing around me.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Truth

12/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Hirokazu Koreeda’s first film outside his native Japan is an elegant French affair, a story about the tensions between mothers and daughters, fiction and truth, acting and living. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is a celebrated actress, whose memoir – entitled La Vérité – has just been published. There’s an initial print run of a hundred thousand, she boasts to her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche). ‘Fifty thousand,’ her assistant corrects her, and Lumir rolls her eyes. Such self-aggrandising exaggeration is clearly typical of her mother, and establishes Fabienne’s complicated relationship with ‘truth.’

Lumir lives in New York, where she is a screen-writer. She has a husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor, newly sober after a stint in rehab, and a young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier); this is their first visit to Paris for many years. Clearly Lumir and Fabienne have issues to work through.

The storytelling is as elegant as Fabienne’s home furnishings. She has all the trappings of success, including a house that ‘looks like a castle.’ She’s imperious and vain, but complex too: this is no pantomime villain. Just a woman, caught in the gap between the fantasies she performs and the emotional realities she avoids.

The film-within-a-film device is neatly employed, the parallels between Fabienne’s current project, Memories of My Mother (based on a short story by Ken Liu), and the dynamics of her real-life family are subtly – but clearly – defined. In the story, a mother is frozen in time; her daughter ages while she stays the same. Fabienne plays the daughters’s oldest incarnation. But Fabienne and Lumir are frozen too; they’ve never moved past the resentments forged in Lumir’s youth, never resolved their feelings around a cataclysmic event, the death of ‘Sarah,’ Fabienne’s friend (and rival), and Lumir’s confidante. But, as Lumir confronts Fabienne about the distortions in her memoir, we see the glimmerings of a thaw…

Deneuve completely dominates this film, and that’s as it should be: it’s clearly her story. Fabienne is a huge character; everyone is diminished in her presence. Binoche and Hawke make excellent foils, their exasperation and admiration beautifully conveyed.

Koreeda is clearly one to watch; this is an utterly compelling piece of cinema, where not much happens but everything matters.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Funny Girl

08/05/20

Digital Theatre

I’m not at all sure that Funny Girl is quite my thing, but how will I know unless I give it a go? We haven’t watched a musical since lockdown began, so at the very least it’ll be a change. And Sheridan Smith is bound to be good, isn’t she?

Oh yes, she is. Smith is a delightful performer; she oozes charisma, and her vocals are stunning. She’s lively and likeable, connecting easily with the audience, even via the small screen.

I’m not mad about the play though. It’s too slight and feels dated (well, it is over fifty years since Barbra Streisand wowed in the movie version). It’s a biographical piece about 1920s Broadway star Fanny Brice, and the central notion seems to be how very surprising it is that someone as plain as Fanny can become successful. She’s so talented she can overcome her looks! And a handsome man even falls in love with her! It’s all a bit too Susan-Boyle-backstory for me.

Of course, it’s true that beauty matters far too much in show business, even now; it’s all too credible. It’s just that the script seems to venerate Fanny for overcoming her ordinary features, rather than excoriating an industry that values the wrong things.

The love story is weak as well. Darius Campbell plays Nick Arnstein, but I never really believe in him as a debonair playboy, and I never really get why Fanny falls for him the way she does. She seems so much stronger than him and so self-sufficient; the story is reminiscent of A Star is Born, but without the same tension. Nick doesn’t ever seem to have a star for Fanny to eclipse.

Nevertheless, this is a lively, spirited piece of theatre; the two hours pass by pleasantly. The choreography is cheeky and upbeat, and director Michael Mayer sensibly foregrounds the humour throughout. Because Fanny’s good-natured clowning is genuinely funny, and Smith knows how to make it land.

In fact, she’s so much better than the material it’s almost a travesty. She saves it, just, by being so irresistible.

3 stars

Susan Singfield