Month: August 2014

The Keeper of Lost Causes



Based on the Department Q novels of Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes (awful title) is a slow-burning Scandi-Noir that seems a perfect fit for fans of The Killing and The Bridge – though judging by the audience of six that attended the afternoon screening we went to, not enough people have heard about it.

Nickolaj Lie Kaas stars as the unfortunately named Carl Morck, a headstrong detective who on one fateful investigation doesn’t wait for the appropriate back-up and gets one of his partners killed and the other paralysed. Hated by his colleagues and understandably pretty depressed (the recent break up of his marriage hasn’t helped matters), he’s given a new role by his hard-pressed boss and assigned the thankless task of reviewing cold cases and ‘putting them to bed.’ He’s also given a new partner, Assad (Fares Fares) a Muslim detective who has spent most of his career working on the cases that nobody else wants. For him, this is a promotion, but for Morck it’s a slap in the face. Eventually, his interest is aroused by a five year old case, that of a young woman, Meretes Lynggaard (Sonia Richter) missing presumed drowned. But something about the evidence offered by witnesses on the ferry crossing from which she disappeared doesn’t quite add up…

Unlike the detectives, we actually  know what happened to her – her fate is revealed in a series of vivid flashbacks – and it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that she is alive, imprisoned and being treated horribly (what is it about the Scandi crime writers’ mentality that loves to see female characters tortured?) As Morck and Assad move inexorably closer to a solution, even after they’ve been taken off the case… the tension builds to almost unbearable levels. Cynics might argue that the two cops never seem to make a mistake; their intuition pays off every time, but that’s a minor quibble. This is a gripping thriller that deserves a much bigger audience than it’s likely to get in the multiplexes.

Anybody out there with spandex fatigue, this one’s for you!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Big Value Thursday at the Frog and Bucket



On Thursday nights at the Frog and Bucket, the accent is on value for money and we certainly get that. For a basic admission cost of £9, there’s an ebullient host (Dave Ward) and four comedians. Drinks are relatively cheap for Manchester city centre and the interior of the club is clean and welcoming. 

First up is Geordie comic, Seymour Mace, who looks like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Elvis Costello. He favours a sly, much put-upon persona, which doesn’t always connect with the crowd, but I really liked his closing routine where he imagined himself as a backing singer for Gladys Knight. (One of the Pips?) He demonstrated a flair for movement and visual comedy, something that he might want to develop more.

Liam Tulley is an impassive young stand-up who could do with a little more confidence than he’s currently showing. There are some decent gags peppered through his ten minute spot, but he has a tendency to rattle through the material, where a more measured delivery would reap dividends. That’s something that will surely come with experience.

Mike Milling is a different kind of comic entirely. A bearded, hyperactive chap in shorts, he leaps onstage and with a series of hand drawn cartoons, outlines his plans for a blockbuster sequel to Snakes On A Plane, Jack Russell’s in a Caravan. It’s faintly surreal and occasionally very funny, but once again, the short time slot works against him. 

The evening’s headliner is Jeff Innocent, a Londoner and his evident professionalism sets him apart from his fellow comics on tonight’s bill. We’ve caught his act before at the Comedy Store in London, where he came on dressed in combat gear, looking very aggressive and proceeded to charm everyone by being the exact opposite of what we expected. His approach to comedy is clever and he delights in confounding expectations. He’s certainly on fine form tonight, describing himself as the ‘jewish Bruce Willis’ and pointing out how confusing it must be for people who expect him to be a racist only to discover that he’s really quite the opposite. He works the crowd expertly and is rewarded with hearty laughter. He’s given the lion’s share of the running time and it simply zips by. Almost before we know it, the show’s over and it’s time to head home.

The ‘Frog’ has been Manchester’s foremost comedy club for something like 20 years and those looking for a night of good value entertainment could do a lot worse than trying their regular Thursday night sessions.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney




Why do they do it? Brian De Palma pretty much nailed this idea in 1976, but as is the way of things these days, somebody has decided that they can put a new spin on it. Except that director Kimberly Peirce completely fails to do that. Apart from a few tiny changes (Carrie’s mum owns a dress alteration business, Sue Snell is pregnant and Carrie’s first period humiliation is shared on Facebook) this is pretty much a shot-for-shot retread of De Palma’s film, minus the fancy split-screen, slo mo tropes that are his (brilliant) signatures. And apart from a bit of contemporary tweaking, they’ve even used Lawrence Cohen’s 1976 screenplay.

And then there’s Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s fabulous, but she’s too groomed, too wholesome to play the awkward, naive outsider Carrie White. Her transformation into a beauty on prom night is supposed to be a revelation, but she’s easily the best looking person in the film from the opening shot onwards. And while Sissy Spacek may have been too old for the role in the original, by golly, didn’t she convince at every step? Julianne Moore is a better fit for batty, sex-obsessed Momma White, and she cranks things down a couple of notches from Piper Laurie’s histrionic original, but that’s not enough to justify spending so much time and money on this ‘reimagining.’ Oh and that famous final ‘shock?’ Don’t hold your breath.

To my mind, the only reason for doing something like this is to radically reinvent the material. This is decently made, decently acted and if you’ve never seen the famous original, then maybe it’s worth seeing. But why would you bother when De Palma’s iconic movie is still available on DVD?

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

What If



There’s nothing startling about the premise of What If; it confronts the same fairly standard rom-com conundrums as countless films have done before: can a man and a woman really be ‘just friends’? And what happens to the friendship when they fall in love? So far, so humdrum – and yet, somehow, What If succeeds in feeling fresh and vibrant.

Some of this is down to the dialogue, which is endearingly believable. There are jokes about poo – but it’s not gross-out. Potential cliches are set up, and then undercut. The characters are as flawed and odd as real human beings – not simple amalgams of manufactured quirks.

Daniel Radcliffe, as the sweet but directionless Wallace, shows once again that he is more than a boy wizard. (He really can act, and has a pretty impressive range: from The Woman in Black to Kill Your Darlings and now this; I think he’s proved himself.) The awkward chemistry between him and Zoe ‘Ruby Sparks’ Kazan (as the horribly-named Chantry) lights up the screen, and the Toronto setting is also a welcome change.

A charming and very watchable film.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

We Are The Best!



Stockholm in the 1980’s is proving decidedly dreary for teenage girls, Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bo-Bo (Mira Barkhammer). Their respective parents are nightmares and even worse, everyone says that punk is dead… but they’re having none of it. When they chance upon a free rehearsal space, the girls decide to form a band, even though neither of them can play a note or even own any instruments. However, the space comes with a bass guitar and a set of drums, which is a start and together they write a cacophonous song called We Hate Sport. Then, at a school concert, their gaze falls upon classical guitarist. Hedvig (Lev Le Moyne) and they think they have found their potential third member. The trouble is she’s pretty square and even more problematic, she’s a… Christian.

From these humble beginnings, writer/director Lukas Moodysson spins a delightful and sometimes hilarious tale that personifies the very essence of the punk spirit. The three leads are an absolute delight as they stampede through a series of picaresque adventures, making awful music, getting drunk, falling out with each other and never losing sight of the conviction that they are ‘the best.’ A lovely film in every respect.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

I Declare War



It’s the summer holidays and deep in the woods, two teams of kids are engaged in an elaborate war game, the object being for one team to capture the other’s flag. They are armed only with sticks and catapults but their own imaginations turn their homemade weapons into state-of-the-art military hardware – and as the lines between reality and fantasy become ever more blurred, so the stakes are raised and allegiances shift back and forth, testing friendships to the limit. One team is led by the undefeated P.K. (Gage Munro) while on the other side, the decidedly unpleasant Skinner (Michael Friend) has launched a mutiny to take over the leadership. Meanwhile, the solitary female in the game, Jessica (McKenzie Munro) seems to be playing to her own set of rules…

This is a solid effort from directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson and its nicely acted by the ensemble cast of young actors, with hardly a false note throughout. There are perhaps some over-familiar nods to Lord of the Flies, but the film is never less than entertaining and suggests that the directors may have earned themselves a bigger budget for their next offering.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney




Once upon a time, Luc Besson was France’s foremost action director. Recently, he’s been more successful as a writer/producer, with guilty pleasures like Taken and Transporter to his credit, but it’s a long time since he directed anything of the calibre of Leon or The Fifth Element. Lucy is his attempt to swagger his way back into the big league and while it lacks the kinetic pleasures of his best efforts, it’s nonetheless an entertaining film with an intriguing premise.

Scarlett Johansson plays the eponymous heroine, a luckless student who finds herself tricked by her loser boyfriend into taking a suitcase stuffed with drugs to the hotel room of ruthless crime lord, Mr Jang (Min Sik-Choi). The assignment doesn’t go at all well and these early scenes of Lucy in the dragon’s den, intercut with images of prowling cheetahs hunting their prey, are confidently put together and the strongest moments in the film. Things get rather more complicated when Lucy finds herself the victim of a illicit operation with a bag full of drugs sewn into her intestine. When the bag ruptures, the contents spill through her system and (for reasons that aren’t convincingly explained) Lucy begins to use more and more of her brain’s capacity. Whereupon amazing things begin to happen…

Conveniently, Morgan Freeman is on hand as Professor Norman, an expert on human evolution, to deliver a lecture about what might happen should a human being’s brain power ever be increased. He is at pains to point out that at present, we only use 10 percent of our brains’ potential capacity. This is (apparently) complete nonsense, but don’t let that bother you too much, since it’s merely a device to enable Luc Besson to experiment with the old special effects. Apparently, taking too much of the mysterious drug can turn a meek young student into a kick-ass fighter, able to murder people without raising so much as an eyebrow and to make heavy objects move just by thinking about it.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t Luc Besson’s best film, not by a long shot, but it galumphs along like nobody’s business and it never drags. Meanwhile, Johansson is rapidly becoming this generation’s Marilyn Monroe – the camera adores her and she glides through the proceedings with such assurance, that the viewer barely has time to notice how silly the plot is. Ultimately, this is a partial return to glory for the Gallic action man, but we all know he can do better than this. Still, until another Leon comes along, this will have to do.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Guardians of the Galaxy



The creators of Guardians of the Galaxy would probably like to think that their film is a cut above your average space opera – and indeed, there is much about it that I absolutely loved. But I would also have to admit that there are several elements that seem horribly cliched. The plus points: an unusual cast that includes a talking racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a monosyllabic talking tree (Vin Deisel). Hero Chris Pratt’s nicely sardonic patter neatly undercuts the film’s more pompous passages, and for once here’s a kick-ass heroine (Zoe Saldana) who has a bit more depth than your average green-skinned alien. And then there’s that sublime soundtrack of 80’s classics…

But there are several not so good points. A needlessly complicated plot. Everyone seems to be chasing a metal orb with the power to destroy the galaxy, but at times, it’s hard to fathom anyone’s motivation. The inevitable evil villain (Lee Pace as Ronan) who talks as though he’s just swallowed a bottle of rohypnol and spends most of his time smiting his enemies. The occasional walk-on megastar – Glenn Close and Beniccio Del Toro, dressed up to the nines but given very little to do. And one of those huge special effect climactic battles where the ‘Guardians’ seem to destroy half of a city in their attempts to save it. (See Team America: World Police.)

Of course, the runaway success of this first instalment means that the series will have a sequel and it will probably be even bigger, louder and just as prone to cliche. For me, this is a film in opposition with itself and the score reflects that imbalance.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Around The World In 80 Days



Around The World In 80 Days (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester) is a brilliant adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel, expertly pitched to appeal to the widest possible audience. I can’t remember when I last laughed so hard (and so often) at a theatrical presentation. Of course, any production of this story is going to stand or fall on the quality of its Passepartout and here, he’s played by Michael Hugo, who clowns (and occasionally improvises) his way through a breathless series of set-pieces, whilst maintaining an assured partnership with Andrew Pollard’s stiff-upper-lipped Phileas Fogg.

Though undoubtedly the star here, Hugo is only the jewel in a supremely talented cast. Six other actors take on all the remaining roles, which averages out at around twenty characters apiece! Between them they take on accents, characters and at one point even submit some breathtaking gymnastics. The constantly changing locations are achieved with a minimum of fuss and the use of some everyday objects – in one scene a (surprisingly convincing) Indian elephant is expertly conjured with the use of a grey raincoat and some sound effects.

And it doesn’t stop there. At various points we share the experience of travelling by train, ocean liner and ice sledge and it really feels like we’re doing it! Throughout proceedings, Hugo maintains a fabulous rapport with the audience, at one point even involving younger members to help him to evoke the feel of a ship at sea. A scene where he channels his inner Jackie Chan to offer some kung-fu style choreography was a particular delight. At the play’s conclusion the applause was absolutely ecstatic and little wonder, as this is a production that seems intent on redefining the word ‘entertainment.’ If you see only one play this summer, I urge you not to miss this. It really is THAT good. Those of you with young children can confidently take them along in the certain knowledge that they won’t be bored for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Begin Again



Writer/director John Carney is, of course, the man who created the phenomenon that is Once. Begin Again, is basically a better-heeled version of the same story. Man meets woman, they make a record together, the lyrics of the songs reflect on the story.

So, not exactly a stellar jump for Carney but one that nonetheless has charms of its own. Mark Ruffalo is Dan, an independent record producer who’s career has taken a nosedive after the breakup of his marriage to Miriam (Catherine Keener). One night, drunk in a club, he witnesses a song by singer/songwriter Greta (Keira Knightly) and decides he wants to make an album with her. But she too is damaged goods, having recently been dumped by her partner, Dave (Adam Levine) a self-centred musician currently making a meteoric breakthrough into the big time. Against all the odds, Dan and Greta manage to record their record live on the streets of New York…

OK, leaving aside the sheer impossibility of actually doing that, this is an entertaining movie that demonstrates a real understanding of the current music industry. Knightly makes more than a decent fist of performing the songs (anyone who saw her in the Edge of Love will already know that she can carry a tune) and the ‘will they. won’t they?’ relationship with Ruffalo cooks up some fair chemistry. The scene where Ruffalo visualises the production he’s going to do of Greta’s song is fabulous and probably worth the price of admission alone. This is a entertaining film, but next time out, Carney is definitely going to have to spread his net a little wider.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney