The Call of the Wild

23/02/20

Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild is a classic adventure story – though I suspect it’s much better known in America than it is here in the UK. It’s been filmed several times over the years, but what makes Chris Sanders’ 2020 version different from its predecessors is that all the canines featured here are CGI creations. (At least there’s no need for a ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film’ caption.) For the most part, you wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been told, but there are ocasional moments when something doesn’t look quite right, usually when the filmmaker’s desire to anthropomorphise his doggy cast slightly oversteps the mark.

It’s 1897 and Buck, a St Bernard/Collie cross, is the beloved pet of a California-based judge. Buck is adorable but extremely clumsy, always managing to leave a trail of devastation in his wake. It’s therefore hard to believe that his owner sheds too many tears when Buck is dog-napped and sent to Alaska, where the gold rush has created a lively market for his sort.

Initially Buck becomes a member of a sled team, taking the mail to far flung parts of the Yukon, under the command of the kindly Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee). But a dog’s fortunes can change and he soon finds himself owned by the cruel, dastardly, gold-obsessed Hal (Dan Stevens), and  – later on – by the (much nicer) John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has come out to the wilderness after a family tragedy.

It’s all handsomely mounted with sweeping landscapes and big skies and you’ll probably  find yourself pining for the wide open spaces and the Northern Lights. The story however, is somewhat fitful, most exciting in its earlier stretches (a sequence where the mail sled has to outrun an avalanche is so thrilling that it unbalances the movie somewhat). Later on, the tale becomes decidedly more somnolent as Thornton seeks solace in drink and Buck acts as his canine conscience. Those familiar with the novel will know that, through the last act, Buck is increasingly impelled to interract with the local timber wolves. This final stretch has, for understandable reasons, been changed somewhat from the original tale, but – as a result – feels a little too foreshadowed for comfort.

Niggles aside, this is a thoroughly decent adaptation, particularly suitable for younger viewers, though I can’t see it dragging too many of them away from the comic book franchises which still hold sway over their affections. Lovers of the orginal novel will, I’m sure, feel that Jack London’s brainchild has been treated with the respect it deserves.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Greed

22/02/20

Steve Coogan’s regular collaborations with director Michael Winterbottom always yield interesting results. There’s the iconic 24 Hour Party People, the various iterations of The Trip, the splendidly labyrinthine A Cock and Bull Story – but none of these can quite prepare a viewer for the caustic evisceration of venture capitalism that is Greed. The film isn’t subtle in its approach; on the contrary, it goes in with all guns blazing and neatly obliterates its chosen targets.

Coogan plays Sir Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie, a man who has positioned himself as a major player in the fashion industry, mostly by virtue of being meaner and crueller than the competition. As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, he finds his image smeared by bad publicity, so he decides to throw a Gladiator-themed birthday bash on the Greek island of Mykonos. He invites his ex-wife – and titular head of his company – Samantha (Isla Fisher), his new partner (Shanina Shaik), his aged mother (Shirley Henderson), his son, Finn (Asa Butterfield), and a whole host of VIPs. The event will be staged as a gladitorial extravaganza, which naturally involves building a Roman ampitheatre and will even feature a lion called Clarence. What could go wrong?

Through the ensuing confusion wanders the hapless Nick (David Mitchell, pretty much playing himself). He’s Sir Richard’s chosen biographer, clearly struggling to put together a sympathetic portrait of an odious subject – though he does find some solace in his brief exchanges with personal assistant, Cathy (Pearl Mackie), who has her own reasons for hating her boss. McCreadie is a man who complains that the local beach is occupied by ‘unsightly’ Syrian refugees, a man who – instead of paying them to make themselves scarce (which would be bad enough) – tricks them into working as his waiters, complete with Roman slave costumes. With his slicked back grey hair and outlandishly capped teeth, McCreadie is quite clearly styled on Sir Philip Green, right down to the appropriation of his workers’ pension funds, the profits from which go straight into the purchase of yet another luxury yacht. If anybody on the planet had an ounce of sympathy left for Green, this film will neatly extinguish it.

Winterbottom (who also wrote the screenplay) makes no bones about his utter contempt for his subject. Though he examines McCreadie’s formative years, when he was card-sharping his way through boarding school, there’s never any attempt to create sympathy for the character. He is, quite simply, the product of privilege – an arrogant, hateful man addicted to the aquisition of more and more wealth, for no better reason than the fact that he has a natural ability for it. Though Coogan often has some amusing lines, its easier to laugh at McCreadie than with him.

Greed has been widely criticised for a scattershot approach to its central subject, but it’s fueled by an almost incandescent sense of anger, a disgust that creatures like McCready are allowed to exist and prosper in a world that ought to have the sense to depose them The closing credits offer a horrifying list of statistics about the world’s wealth, but they are hardly necessary. The film has already instilled a feeling of utter shame.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Home is Not the Place

21/02/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

 

In Home is Not the Place, poet/dramatist Annie George explores the story of her own childhood and that of her grandfather, the Malayalam poet, PM John. If his name doesn’t exactly resonate with contemporary audiences, that’s hardly surprising. He died in 1945 at the age of 40 and, a couple of years later, nearly all of his writing was destroyed in a house fire. As a novelist myself, the idea fills me with horror – I still have a huge trunk of my early work, which I have stubbornly dragged from location to location. It’s unpublishable but losing it would be a nightmare.

And it’s this lack of substance that makes for a slightly frustrating experience – the sections that deal with George’s own story are far more compelling than the slightly nebulous narrative concerning her grandfather. We hear recollections of George’s childhood journey to London from India, how she eventually found refuge in the more nurturing nature of Scottish society and how she developed as a writer herself. But of PM John there are only vague impressions, built around an old portrait of him, which has been badly ‘restored.’ (I would have loved to hear one of his poems, for instance, which would give a clearer picture of who he was and what he represented. Presumably this absence is even more irksome for George.)

HINTP uses still images, short pieces of film and atmospheric bursts of Indian music to illustrate the various themes. The central thrust of the narrative is about the way our experiences shape us as individuals and about what the term ‘home’ really means to each person. This comes through eloquently. George is a compelling narrator and once she’s settled into her stride, she pulls me into the poignant sweep of the piece. 

But I’m left wanting to know more about PM John – I spend some time afterwards fruitlessly searching for more information about him on the internet. Perhaps that’s been George’s intention all along.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vesta

20/02/20

Queensferry Street, Edinburgh

We’ve long been impressed by Social Bite, the Edinburgh-based charity with a mission to end homelessness in Scotland. The whole enterprise is an object lesson in how much individuals can achieve – so long as they have vision, tenacity and drive. And compassion, of course. From a sandwich shop in Rose Street to a nationwide endeavour spanning sleep outs, a training academy and even its own village, Alice Thompson and Josh Littlejohn have made a real difference.

And tonight, we’re eating at Vesta, the second incarnation of the charity’s restaurant (you can read our review of Social Bite’s previous partnership with Maison Bleue here: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2016/12/31/home/). We have family visiting, which gives us the perfect excuse to check out the menu.

It’s not as fancy as it used to be – more gastro pub than fine dining. But that’s okay by us. I don’t want a starter tonight (I’m saving room for pudding), so I sip at a glass of Pinot Grigio while Philip eats his chilli & coriander crab cakes, served with a courgette & red pepper remoulade. They’re lovely: robust and well flavoured, and a very generous portion. 

For his main, Philip opts for the roast rump of lamb, which comes with aubergine ratatouille, pommes anna, salsa verde, garlic & spinach puree. The meat is nicely pink and succulent, and the accompaniments work well. I have a poached fillet of hake with roasted pumpkin, savoy cabbage & a watercress butter sauce, and it’s pretty near perfect. We order a side of mac’n’cheese just because, and that’s okay, although maybe not as indulgent and cheesy as the very best of its kind. 

For pudding, I have the oreo cheesecake with macerated berries and ice cream (instead of the Chantilly cream that’s on the menu). It’s delicious, in a too-sweet-kids’d-love-it-lip-smacking kind of way. Philip’s vegan dark chocolate mousse with honeycomb & salted caramel is an altogether more grown-up affair, with a rich, intense flavour.

We’re done. It’s time to head off for a quick drink, and then home. But before we go, of course, we need to add a little something to the bill. You can’t come here and ignore the pay it forward option, which enables the restaurant to open on Mondays for an exclusively homeless clientele. Food with a conscience. It feels good.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

I Think We Are Alone

18/02/20

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I Think We Are Alone is all about compartmentalisation: about the boxes we create in which we hide our deepest fears, our greatest losses, our inner conflicts. In this brilliantly choreographed show, those boxes are represented quite literally by big translucent rectangles, mounted on wheels and expertly moved around the stage by the cast to create a whole series of settings. They are the doors of a hospice, the walls of a dance club – sometimes they shimmer and pulsate with light, sometimes the ghosts of past memories stare mournfully through them, as if entreating us to help.

And sometimes those same rectangles crowd suffocatingly in upon the performers, encircling them, crushing them, sealing them off from salvation.

It would be easy in the midst of all this spectacle to lose track of the performances, but Sally Abbott’s meticulously crafted script never allows that to happen. We are introduced to six seemingly unconnected characters and then gradually, expertly, Abbott pulls the threads of the disparate tales together, showing us how characters interconnect with other, the elements they have in common, the things that separate them. As one revelation unfolds in the second act, I actually slap my forehead, wondering how I can have failed to see it coming. But I have, and that’s down to the skill of the writing.

Clare (Polly Frame) and Ange (Charlotte Bate) are struggling to get past a dark secret they have shared since childhood, a secret that threats to drive them apart forever. Josie (Chizzy Akudolu), the proud mother of Cambridge student, Manny (Caleb Roberts), wants her son to have all the advantages of a classic education, something she always longed for but never had. And sad loner Graham (Andrew Turner) drives a night taxi from destination to destination, desperately searching for missing connections. As for Bex (Simone Saunders)… ah, now that would be telling.

Co-directed by Kathy Burke and Scott Graham, I Think We Are Alone is more than just a series of monologues and duologues. It’s a splendid example of contemporary theatre, replete with beautifully nuanced acting and Frantic Assembly’s trademark choreographed transitions. A particular nod should be given to Paul Keogan, whose sublime lighting gives the piece a dazzling sheen.

This is thrilling stuff. Miss it and weep.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Ondine

13/02/20

George IV Bridge, Edinburgh

It’s almost Valentine’s day and Ondine has been on our ‘go to’ list for quite a while. (And by the way, we haven’t got the date wrong, it’s just that we never go out to eat on February the 14th, when every restaurant is packed to the rafters and standards inevitably suffer.)

We’ve read good things about Ondine, though – mostly from Jay Rayner, who says that he always eats here whenever he’s in Edinburgh. So we decide to act on his advice and here we sit in the calm, spacious dining area, sipping glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and all ready for a gastronomic blitzkreig. We’re brought a couple of slices of good wholemeal bread to keep us going and there are cod balls as an amuse bouche, although they are a little too redolent of the deep fat fryer for my liking.

The starters are reassuring though: a light and citrusy baked brown crab, with cheddar crumb, served on miniature crumpets, which manages to taste a whole lot better than it looks (like a pair of demented eyeballs). There’s also a delicious treacle-cured salmon, with horseradish sauce, though the chunk of treacle bread that accompanies it isn’t quite as fresh as I want it to be.

For the main course, there’s a generously sized chunk of roasted halibut with creamed potato; the fish is perfectly cooked, soft, flakey and pleasingly charred. There’s also a half lobster with fine herbs and butter sauce. The latter is accompanied by a small helping of triple cooked chips and there’s also a side dish of creamed spinach, the latter served disagreeably cold.

And, oh dear, is there any other meal that’s quite as disappointing as lobster? It squats on your plate, looking like something from the late jurassic period and you’re provided with a set of metal tools that wouldn’t seem out of place on a medieval torturer’s bench. You set about the creature with much gusto, scattering fragments in every direction but it all comes down to a couple of spoonfuls of (admittedly delicious) flesh, after which you’re reduced to searching disconsolately through the debris in search of a few more scraps of anything edible.

(This isn’t a criticism of the restaurant, by the way, but of the very nature of lobster itself. So much effort for so little return. Ah well…)

For puddings we have a treacle tart served with a scoop of ice cream – actually, we can’t help noticing that it’s half a treacle tart, which niggles a little when the price is eight pounds – and there’s a light, tangy rhubarb and custard dessert, encased in soft meringue. Both of these are nice enough, but somehow fail to deliver the triumphant knockout punch that we are hoping for.

It’s been a perfectly agreeable evening, and the food is mostly good, even if some of the details could be improved upon. I can’t help wondering what Mr Rayner sees in this place that I’m missing. Unlike him, I won’t be in a great hurry to return.

3. 8 stars

Philip Caveney