Month: November 2014




For what is ostensibly just another children’s movie, Paddington arrives surrounded by controversy. It has a PG certificate (mildly ridiculous when you think of the kind of big budget carnage that generally acquires a 12A) and others have complained that this new cinematic manifestation features a bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) that is decidedly ursine and not at all like Michael Bond’s original teddy bear creation. At the end of the day all this matters little. The film is a real delight, cleverly put together and featuring plenty of content to appeal to the more mature viewer. In fact, it might be true to say that much of it will be wasted on really young viewers and there are a couple of scenes here (mostly those featuring evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman)) that may actually traumatise them.

The film begins with an origins story (something that Bond never bothered with) which shows a family of rare bears in ‘darkest Peru’ that are discovered by British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie.) From him they learn to speak English and acquire a liking for marmalade. When he departs, he leaves them with an open invitation to visit him in London. But it takes a tragedy (an earthquake) to galvanise young Paddington into heading for England.  At Paddington station, he meets the Brown Family – Hugh Bonneville as an uptight insurance broker and Sally Hawkins as a much more free-thinking book illustrator. The Browns and their two children take Paddington in as a guest and much hilarity ensues…

And it does ensue, most convincingly. In fact, the script by Paul King, never puts a paw wrong, milking the slapstick sequences for enough laughs to keep a young audience entertained, whilst delving into more wistful pastures for older viewers. There’s a wonderfully inventive feel to the film – a host of Heath Robinson-esque inventions, some really appealing visual tricks (a repeated trope of the Brown’s home depicted as a doll’s house is a particular pleasure) and of course Ms Kidman’s character which introduces a touch of menace that the original story lacked. Despite so many doubts, the film makers have done credit to Michael Bond’s original creation (he himself has said that he can ‘sleep easy’ after viewing it) and have successfully ‘opened it up’ to create a satisfying family entertainment, that only the grumpiest viewer will find fault with. A well-deserved hit for the festive season.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

What We Do In The Shadows



You might have thought that as a genre, the vampire movie was pretty much played out. But then along comes a low budget gem like What We Do In The Shadows and you realise that there’s still a few drops of fresh blood left in the old corpse. Set in Wellington, New Zealand and brought to you by the team that gave the world, Flight Of The Conchords, this clever little moc-doc follows the lives of three flatmates who just happen to be vampires.

Vladislav (Jemain Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Viago (Taika Waititi), spend as much time arguing about the washing-up rota as they do harvesting the blood of virgins (a running gag exploits the impossibility of ever finding such a thing in Wellington.)  The vampire gang also keep Nosferatu lookalike Petyr in the cellar (he’s actually quite scary) and have occasional run-ins with a bunch of werewolves, led by alpha male Rhys Derby, who are going to extraordinary lengths to control their anger management issues. ‘We’re werewolves not swear wolves!’ But when new recruit, Nick (Cori Gonzalez Macuer) gets ‘turned’ and starts telling everyone he meets what has happened to him, including his perplexed best friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), things are bound to go a bit wrong…

This movie delights from the very first shot, as a hand comes groping out of a coffin to switch off a noisy alarm clock, and it maintains its momentum throughout, so that when you’re not laughing out loud, you’re sniggering and when you’re not sniggering, you’re smiling as you anticipate the next joke. Film buffs will enjoy the occasional movie reference and the three leads give likeable performances. At just 86 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and given that it’s ultimately a piece of throwaway fluff, it ticks all the boxes for a fun night out. Anyone looking for an antidote to Twilight – the series comes in for a fair bit of stick here – would be well advised to check this one out before it flaps away into the night.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney




This film came and went at the cinema without making much of a splash. Catching up with it on DVD, I found myself wishing I’d managed to see it on the big screen, because its dazzling depictions of the Australian outback are one its strongest features and there are scenes here that are genuinely jaw dropping.

It’s based on the autobiography of Robyn Davidson, who as a teenager in the 1970’s, decided to walk across the Australian desert, (a trip of some 1,700 miles which took her nine months to complete), with just four camels and a dog for company. Quite why she chose to do so remains something of a mystery, as Davidson, as portrayed by Mia Wasikowska, remains something of an enigma throughout, a young woman who shuns the company of her peers and clearly possesses incredible courage and determination. Her only human company for the trip are encounters with aborigines and the occasional meeting along the route with photo journalist, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). His interest in the trip obtained Davidson’s funding from National Geographic and he is required to provide photographic evidence, but apart from one furtive sexual encounter in the desert, he’s mostly treated with the general contempt she doles out to everyone else.

There’s not much of a story arc here. The film unfolds slowly, almost hypnotically, as Davidson walks further and further into the wilderness, suffering thirst, sun burn, hallucinations  and a series of flashbacks based around her troubled childhood. To its credit, it never palls and by the conclusion, you do feel as though you’ve been on the trip yourself. A series of photographs that accompany the credits show just how realistic the film is, with both Wasikowska and Driver looking uncannily like their real life counterparts.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Homesman



I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a decent western, but in this day and age they are rare beasts indeed and they seldom draw much attention from the media (the honourable exception being the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, a strong Oscar contender back in 2011.) Veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones has co-written and directed this downbeat story, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout and while it’s occasionally rather bleak, there’s nonetheless plenty here to enjoy, even if the movie doesn’t really deserve the ‘feminist western’ tag it’s been er… saddled with. Yes, there’s a strong female central character, but there are also three women who have been driven mad by their inability to cope with life in the wilderness, whilst their respective husbands seem to be getting along just fine – so while it might be considered feminist in the sense that it centres on a woman’s story, it’s hardly a tale of empowerment.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a spinster, hacking out a living for herself as a homesteader in the brutal environs of Nebraska territory at some unspecified point in the 1800s. Because she’s supposedly ‘as plain as a tin pail’ she’s struggling to find a husband for herself in an era where such a failure is considered shameful. This is one point where the film doesn’t really convince. Swank is terrific in the role, but there’s no way anyone could consider her plain, despite the costume department putting her in some of the ugliest costumes in cinematic history. Cuddy is a devout and determined woman and when she hears that three local wives have (for a variety of reasons) lost their minds, she undertakes the hazardous job of driving them back East to civilisation, a trip that will take five weeks or more. When she chances on George Briggs (Lee Jones) sitting on a horse with a rope around his neck, she offers to save his life if he will promise to help her with the (unspecified) task and he hastily agrees, little realising what he’s taking on. Lee Jones is a delight as the scowling, curmudgeonly George, a man with a shady past and a tendency to go off the rails when he’s had a few drinks. If the film is reminiscent of any other, it’s The African Queen and the pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Humphry Bogart.

As I said, there’s much to admire here. Great central performances, superb cameos from the likes of Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld (though James Spaders’ turn as a duplicitous Irish hotel owner, features a very dodgy accent indeed) and a genuinely shocking surprise in the film’s final third. But a sequence where Briggs burns down Spader’s hotel (and everyone in it) seems somehow over the top, given the minor provocation he’s received. (Perhaps it was the accent?) At the end of the day, The Homesman is an entertaining film, that falls short of perfection in a few respects, but is still worth your consideration.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Monuments Men



Based (rather loosely, according to all reports) on a true story, The Monuments Men is actually built around an intriguing premise, the exploits of a team of art historians, who in the final days of the 2nd World War, are charged with the task of rescuing some of the great works of art appropriated by the Nazis. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and his veteran team undergo basic training (a piece of cake apparently) and then head off to a series of exotic locations in search of Hitler’s pilfered masterpieces, while the war rumbles on, rather half-heartedly, in the background.

Handsomely mounted and featuring a cast to die for –  Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchette, Bill Murray… (I could go on), the overwhelming mystery here is why the resulting movie is so fatally uninvolving. Perhaps the blame lies with the lukewarm script by Clooney and Grant Heslov, which barely touches upon the irony of men giving their lives to save art (one short scene in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) says it more eloquently than this entire movie does) or perhaps it’s the fact that the story never manages to generate any real fire in its belly and becomes a series of ‘almost did’ events. Damon’s character for instance, almost has a romantic liaison with Blanchette’s art historian, but instead, does the decent thing and goes home. Hugh Bonneville as a disgraced historian, who given a second chance decides to be a hero, almost manages to raise a tear but, not quite. Likewise when Damon’s character stands on an unexploded land mine, an opportunity to generate some genuine suspense if ever there was one, the device turns out to be a dud.

Ultimately, this is a decent enough attempt at telling a story, yet there remains the distinct conviction that the story must surely have been grittier and more dynamic than this and consequently, The Monuments Men should be filed under L for  lost opportunities.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Drop



Based on a short story by Denis Lehane, The Drop is a slow-burning crime drama that revolves around a seedy bar in Brooklyn. Here, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) serves the drinks, under the watchful eye of his cousin Marv (James Gandolphini in his final screen role.) The bar is a regular ‘drop’ for the Chechnyan gang lords who actually own the place, somewhere to deposit illicit money generated by drugs, prostitution, protection rackets… you name it. Over the years, Marv and Bob have learned that it’s safer to just go along with things, rather than bringing the wrath of their employers down on their heads. But when Bob chances upon a badly beaten puppy in a litter bin belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace) things get a little more complicated – she is the ex girlfriend of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenearts) the puppy’s owner and a self-professed killer. It soon becomes clear that Deeds wants his dog (and Nadia) back – he doesn’t seem to make much distinction between the two of them. Then, an armed robbery at the bar relieves the ‘owners’ of $5,000 and it’s inevitable that the Chechnyans are going to want their money back…

Hardy is terrific in the lead role. He seems to be channeling Brando’s memorable turn as boxer Terry Molloy in On The Waterfront, delivering a hugely appealing character that seems as helpless as he is vulnerable. But in Lehane’s world, still waters run deep and there are a couple of twists in the narrative that are sure to take you by surprise. Gandolphini bows out in style, depicting a man who is impelled towards crime, not because of greed but by personal circumstance. This movie shows a side of America that we rarely see on film, an unabashedly blue collar world of grime, debt and criminal corruption. Though it takes its time to reveal the whole story, there’s a constant simmering threat of violence hanging over everything that happens and the conclusion, when it finally arrives, is brutal and shattering.

While in no way a ‘big’ movie, The Drop has a confident, engrossing narrative and is yet another notch in Hardy’s chameleon-like ability to portray characters from all continents and all walks of life. And it serves as a fine farewell for James Gandolphini, to whom the film is respectfully dedicated.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

The Imitation Game



So many bottoms on seats at a Saturday afternoon showing for what is, ostensibly, an ‘art house’ movie can mainly be put down to  one thing – the Cumberbatch Effect. Seriously, this man could go on film and read his shopping lists and an eager audience would surely turn up to watch him do it. So what a good thing that The Imitation Game is a unqualified delight, a truly absorbing and compelling tale, expertly told, that, despite a running time of 114 minutes, doesn’t flag for a moment. And in the lead role of mathematician and all-round genius, Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is (it has to be said) quite extraordinary.

Of course it’s not the first time that this story has been attempted in the cinema. Some may remember Enigma (2001), where Dougray Scott was charged with playing a fictional version of Turing called Tom Jericho and where all the awkward stuff was summarily skipped. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a box office failure. This version of the story, however, stays closer to the facts and is all the better for it.

The film opens in 1951, where Manchester-based detective, Inspector Nock (Rory Kinnear) investigates a mysterious break in at Turing’s apartment and guesses that the man is hiding secrets, but he can have little idea of the web of intrigue that is going to be revealed as a result of his investigation. History of course has (eventually) recorded that Turing is the man who turned the tide of World War Two, by deciphering the German’s Enigma Code. In so doing, he shortened the course of the war by two years, saved millions of lives and (almost as a side-effect) pioneered the use of computers. But it’s also a tragic story. He was treated abominably for being a homosexual at a time when such a thing was illegal and suffered the almost unimaginable consequences.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum ( Headhunters) handles the proceedings with great skill and he’s aided and abetted by a superb screenplay by Graham Moore, one that skips effortlessly back and forth in time without ever confusing the audience and manages to make the most complex material easily understandable. An ensemble cast delivers a host of note-perfect performances. Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, Turing’s doomed would-be fiancé, is a particular delight and both Charles Dance and Mark Strong excel in their roles as, respectively, a crusty Commander and a secret service operative. Special mention should also be made for Alex Lawther, who plays Turing as a boy, a matching of two actors that, for once, absolutely convinces. But, even amidst such riches, this is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s movie and he manages to nail Turing’s (clearly autistic) character absolutely, by turns funny, awkward and inspirational. The film’s conclusion is just heartbreaking and only the stoniest character will manage to resist tears.

The Imitation Game is filmmaking of the highest order and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


James Dacre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is assured and confident, aided not inconsiderably by Mike Britton’s simultaneously stark and sumptuous set. The oppressive heat of the American Deep South is almost palpable, despite the cold reality of a November evening in Manchester. The lazy whirring of the inevitable ceiling fans and the glare of imagined sunshine from the gloss-white floor combine to create a drunken, languorous atmosphere seething with repressed emotion: the calm that comes before the storm.

Last night’s performances were solid: if Marian Gale (as Maggie) took a while to settle into the rhythm of her desperate stream of words, she made up for it in later scenes, where the raw emotion of unrequited love was beautifully expressed. Big Mama (Kim Cresswell) was a suitably unpleasant recipient for Big Daddy (Daragh O’Malley)’s crass indifference; Matthew Douglas and Victoria Elliott, as Mae and Gooper, provided a welcome respite from the play’s essential brutality, with their obnoxious brood of no-neck singing brats (think Sound of Music without the heartwarming stuff). The scenes where Brick (Charles Aitkin) was lying on the floor at Big Daddy’s feet, helpless without either his literal or his alcoholic crutch, brought home the importance of Williams’s theme: if Brick’s love for Jack Skipper had been allowed to thrive in the open, how much less destructive for all concerned.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is undoubtedly a miserable play, with little in the way of relief, and this production was certainly not to everybody’s taste last night. Three people sitting behind us left during Act 1 (one of them actually exiting through the set) to go for a cigarette, although they (unlike the couple sitting next to us) did at least return for the second act. Still, somebody in the audience clearly liked it enough to start taking photographs towards the end; the flash was distracting for us in the audience; goodness knows how irritating it was for the actors trying to focus on their lines.

All in all, this was an interesting – if ultimately unexciting – production. A faithful representation of a strange and turbulent play.

3.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense



The Lowry, Salford

A perfect antidote for the November ‘glums’, Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense offered what amounted to a large helping of theatrical fluff. But what accomplished fluff! This superb three-hander, already a substantial hit in the West End, finished it’s run at the Lowry in great style. I’d love to tell you something about the plot but it’s pretty unfathomable – something to do with a silver plated cream jug, a marriage proposal and some hilarious shenanigans concerning a nine foot tall Hitler lookalike. (I think that about covers it). Needless to say, Wooster blunders throughout proceedings in the time-honoured tradition, Jeeves manages to say so much with the merest raising of an eyebrow and I think it’s fair to say that PG Wodehouse would have approved of this interpretation of his work.

The conceit here is that Bertie (James Lance in triumphantly oafish mode) elects to act out one of his recent japes for the audience’s delectation, aided and abetted by Jeeves (John Gordon Sinclair) who in his usual capable manner has arranged for certain ‘props’ to be available. All the other roles (and they are numerous) are enacted by Seppings (Robert Goodale) an elderly retainer charged with a series of lightning fast costume changes. Special mention must go to set and costume designer, Alice Power, who has created a proscenium set that incorporates a multitude of tricky concealed entrances and exits, which enable the action to scamper along at breakneck pace. Some of the reveals are so surprising that the audience couldn’t conceal their gasps of amazement!

The three players handled the piece with consummate panache and during one extended set piece, where Jeeves had to enact two separate characters simultaneously (one male, one female) my laughter threatened to turn to sheer hysteria. Suffice to say, this was triumphant clowning of the highest order. The hearty ovation from a delighted audience was well and truly earned.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney




Some films arrive in the cinema burdened by the weight of unreasonable expectation and Interstellar is one such film. Probably the most anticipated release since Prometheus (and look what happened with that!), if we are to believe what we’re told, this film is destined to save the film industry itself because what the world needs now is a major blockbuster and this just might be it. The film takes on weighty themes like the demise of mankind, the exploration of space and some fairly ‘out there’ theories about black holes and the fifth dimension. If much of it feels like a homage to Kubrick’s 2001, that’s no bad thing. The good news is, that though not perfect, Christopher Nolan’s three hour epic manages to hold a viewer’s attention throughout and in two key set pieces racks up levels of almost unbearable suspense.

The world is going to hell in a handcart, mostly because it’s turning into one great big dustbowl. Crops are dying out and ex space explorer Cooper, (Matthew McConaughey) now a corn farmer, sees his livelihood slipping away. When his young daughter Murphy tells him that the bookcase in her bedroom is trying to communicate with her (stay with me) Cooper identifies an anomaly, one that leads him to a remote location, where NASA scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is preparing a secret space mission, which he hopes will find a way to save the world. He’s prepared to send his own daughter, (Anne Hathaway) as a member of the team and he wants Cooper to pilot the spaceship. But it will mean being parted from his children for many years, with no guarantee of survival…

It’s to the film’s credit, that it makes some fairly unlikely events seem believable, but much of the ‘science’ here is so mind-blowingly complicated, that characters often have to resort to sketching diagrams to ensure that the audience understands it better – and there’s a final M. Night Shymalan-style twist that will either have you starry-eyed with wonder or shouting ‘no way!’ at the screen. Whether Interstellar can save the film industry is debatable. What is for sure is that Nolan hasn’t lost his Midas touch when it comes to creating awe-inspiring cinema. The father-daughter relationship at the heart of this tale is a powerful hook and the cinematography and special effects sequences are often breath-taking. A palpable hit, methinks.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney