Month: November 2015

Bridge of Spies

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29/11/15

Stephen Spielberg wears two hats. There’s the backwards baseball cap he wears when he’s directing superior popcorn entertainments like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park – and sometimes, he reaches into the back of the wardrobe and pulls out a sombre black homburg, which is his hatwear of choice when helming ‘darker’ material like Schindler’s List and Munich. Bridge of Spies is definitely a homburg movie, but in its quiet own way, its as gripping and involving as any of his other films. Spielberg has the uncanny ability to take the most complex story and tell it with effortless style, making it accessible and involving.

It’s 1957 and the ‘Cold War’ between America and Russia is at its height. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) an apparently innocuous amateur artist is arrested on a charge of spying for the USSR. He is, arguably, the most hated man in America. Veteran lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend him, mainly because the law must be observed and despite the fact that even the judge on the case openly declares that Abel should be found guilty. But Donovan is a liberal, who believes implicitly in the American constitution. He fights Abel’s case (unsuccessfully) through the courts and finds himself vilified for doing so – but he does manage to prevent him from going to the electric chair, pointing out that Abel might be a useful bargaining tool in the future.

Sure enough, shortly afterwards, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers is shot down whilst carrying out a spy mission over Russian territory. He’s taken prisoner and the CIA are terrified that he might be persuaded to leak the secrets of the U2 spy plane. A possible exchange of prisoners is mooted and once again, Donovan is recruited to head out to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange…

This is a beautifully made film, that brilliantly invokes the austere look of the era and provides a fresh perspective on the business of espionage. Hanks is perfectly cast as the American everyman, a role that would have been played by James Stewart back in the day, his chunky features emanating absolute integrity. Rylance, meanwhile, as the dry, sardonic Abel gives a masterclass in acting. Together, the two actors strike sparks off each other and they are aided and abetted by a razor sharp script, created by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.

There’s little to dislike here and plenty to admire. It’s essentially a ‘small’ movie, which tells its story with skill and precision and never puts a foot wrong. As the story moves towards its conclusion, it bills up levels of suspense that will have you twitching in your seat.

Spielberg wears both his hats with equal success but I have to say, I do prefer him in the homburg.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Winter’s Tale

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Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening

26/11/15

The Winter’s Tale is something of a curiosity, the work, it seems, of a playwright who was still experimenting even as he neared the end of his career. Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale contains romance as well as realism, and attempts to fuse the yin and yang of theatre, encompassing both comedy and tragedy. And, although this play is arguably more uneven than The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, a delight to watch, particularly when performed and directed with such poise.

Live cinema screenings are a godsend to those of us who don’t live in London, allowing us access to plays we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But the format does have its limitations, most notable in this production in the lighting. Presumably the audience at the Garrick could see perfectly well, but the low lighting didn’t translate well to the big screen, making the whole of the first half rather difficult to discern; indeed, even the lighter, brighter second half seemed curiously muted, considering its lively and pastoral nature.

This aside, the production worked well. Branagh’s is a traditional interpretation of the play, performed with scholarly precision rather than flights of fancy, playing to the strengths of its distinguished cast and crew. Judi Dench is a fine Paulina – of course she is – and Branagh (equally predictably) makes a convincing Leontes. The contrasts – between town and country, prince and pauper, repression and ebullience – are all writ large, and there’s both charm and energy aplenty here.

Why then am I sighing or shrugging when people ask me what I thought of this? I suppose it just seems like I’ve seen it all before: this is a proficient and assured production, but there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s done. Maybe there doesn’t need to be; I’m sure there are many theatre-goers who would see this as a positive and, certainly, I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. Still, it all feels just a little too familiar to stir enthusiasm.

A good production, but not a thrilling one.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Carol

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28/11/15

Director Todd Haynes seems to belong to another age. His films effortlessly capture the look and feel of the 1950s – the fashions, the furniture and, more than anything else, the cigarettes – not since the days of Bette Davis has a film made the simple act of smoking a cigarette look so downright glamorous. The characters light up everywhere – in restaurants, bars and in the street. (Even staunch anti smokers may leave the cinema longing for a cigarette). Despite its presumably unconscious promotion of nicotine, Carol may just be Hayne’s best movie yet. It’s a love story, a slow burner told at a languorous pace, featuring two fine performances from its lead actors.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works in a department store, but harbours dreams of one day being a professional photographer. One Christmas, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) comes looking for a present for her daughter and Therese sells her a train set. When she leaves, Carol leaves her gloves on the counter (accidentally? On purpose? We’re never quite sure). There is an immediate connection between the two women and when Therese takes the trouble to return the gloves, Carol invites her to lunch. We soon discover that Carol is separated from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), largely because of an affair she has recently had with Abbi (Sarah Paulson). When Harge discovers the developing friendship between Therese and Carol, he decides to make life difficult for his wife, and claims custody of their daughter. Carol is faced with a difficult decision.

There’s so much to admire here – as well as perfectly judged performances from the cast, there’s glowing cinematography by Edward Lachman, a gorgeous score by Carter Burwell and an intelligent script by Phyllis Nagy, based on an early novel by Patricia Highsmith. The production simply oozes class and I loved the fact that it steadfastly refuses to sensationalise its subject matter. You might argue that there’s more than a passing similarity to Hayne’s 2002 production, Far From Heaven, but when the staging is as swooningly assured as this, it’s a resemblance I’m prepared to overlook.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Black Mass

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25/11/15

Time was, when Johnny Depp’s name attached to a movie could be interpreted as a guarantee of quality, but to be fair, it’s been a while since that maxim held true. A once keen ability to pick the right project has lately foundered amidst a welter of vanity puff-pieces. So it’s heartening to report that Black Mass is a major step in the right direction, with Depp submitting his best performance in a very long time.

Here, he’s depicting real life  villain James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a career criminal who operated successfully around his home town of Boston over a period of thirty years, largely because his brother, Bobby, was a senator and his best friend, John Connolly,  an FBI agent. Bulger cannily formed an ‘alliance’ with Connolly, trading inside information on his rivals to ensure that he could operate his web of vice and murder with complete impunity.

Depp has worked hard to make himself look unattractive – complete with thinning hair, bad teeth and pale blue eyes, he’s hardly recognisable as his former self. Initial fears that this is simply going to be a ‘makeup led’ performance are soon quashed, as he submits a convincing turn as a repellent psychopath, a man who can skip from helping an old lady with her shopping, to shooting a man point blank in the face, without raising so much as an eyebrow.

There’s a lot of unflinching violence on show here, but its matched by a sharp script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and there’s the added bonus of a supporting cast to die for – Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sargaard… Seriously, there’s enough talent on show here to fill several movies; but there’s no denying that this is Depp’s film and he has a field day with it.

Like many real life stories, if presented as a piece of fiction, this would seem unlikely. Stay in your seat for the closing credits which offer glimpses of the real protagonists and we’re finally able to fully appreciate the lengths to which director Scott Cooper has gone to ensure that his actors resemble the major players.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

Burger

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24/11/15

Fountainbridge, Edinburgh

To be honest, I’d intended to go somewhere else entirely. (Kampung Ali, a low priced Malaysian joint on the road into Fountainbridge, really worth checking out) – but as luck would have it, the night I called it was booked out for a ‘musical evening’ and no food was being served. Rats!

Then I remembered Burger, just a bit further up the same road, a place which (let’s face it) has a name that gives you a fairly good intimation of what you might expect to find on the menu. And I thought, hey,  why not give it a shot?

It’s a utilitarian kind of joint, plain furnishings, no frills, but it’s clean and bright and friendly. You order at the counter, you’re given a little gadget which flashes when your food is ready (they are very quick here) and you collect the food yourself. The meal is served on a tin tray and the restaurant prides itself on being environmentally friendly. Even the cutlery is made from biodegradable corn starch. Of course, a burger isn’t likely to be top of anybody’s gastronomic highlights, but this was nicely done, (and it’s amazing how many places can get a simple burger wrong). The beef patties were thick and juicy, served on a lightly toasted brioche bun and featured generous amounts of cheese, sliced tomatoes, onions and gherkins, together with a splash of the restaurant’s tangy homemade sauce. Ketchup and French’s mustard were available if required.

The chips, cooked with their skin on, actually tasted as though they’d been made from fresh potatoes, which might sound obvious, but sadly, isn’t always the case. I kept things straightforward, going for the classic option, but there are other burgers of ever increasing complexity and price tags (katsu chicken burger anyone?) For those who don’t really care for burgers, there’s also a selection of hot dogs. I know, live dangerously.

My meal, with a can of drink, came to a very reasonable £9.35. Sometimes you want something quick and simple and in that situation, Burger  hits the spot very nicely. Perfect for a no nonsense meal and for those who are watching the pennies. The earth won’t move but you’ll come out feeling pleasantly full and here, that seems to be the object of the exercise.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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21/11/15

Another day, another dystopia.

So, one of the biggest movie franchises of recent years grinds inexorably to its conclusion and the overriding question is this: is there another blockbusting series in the cinematic universe that is so monumentally dull? Seriously, I know this series isn’t really aimed at somebody like me, but my goodness, it moves so slowly and when you find yourself sitting there thinking about what you might have for breakfast tomorrow, that’s surely not a good sign.

At the film’s start, Katniss Everdean (Jennifer Lawrence) is nursing a bruised throat, delivered courtesy of her old squeeze Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) now a brainwashed wreck thanks to the fiendish ministrations of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Enlisted to lead a mission into the heart of the capital, Katniss enlists alongside her other squeeze, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). And guess what? Peeta goes along too, despite the fact that he keeps trying to kill members of his own squad. Go figure.

What follows is a long series of misadventures as the team are systematically despatched by bombs, bullets and er… oil. In between, we are treated to Katniss trying to choose between her two suitors. Will it be hunky Gale or unreliable Peeta (and if you have to think about that, for very long, then you haven’t really absorbed the message thus far)?

To be fair, there’s a decent sewer-set action sequence towards the final third (though the attacking creatures look like they’ve been drafted in from a far better film, Neil Marshall’s The Descent) and then there’s some more explosions before we’re treated to a ‘surprise’ twist which only the visually impaired won’t have seen coming. And of course, this being the final episode, there’s a syrupy coda, which seems intent on undermining the kickass female role that Lawrence has worked so hard to develop.

Of course, one cannot deny the financial success of this series – people are suggesting that together with the Bond and Star Wars franchise, it will single-handedly restore the fortunes of the cinema industry. But the supposed wisdom of the ‘political messages’ incorporated here are little more than fridge magnet sentiments – and it’s particularly galling to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen moments wasted on this bombastic sludge.

At least the series is finished – that is, until author Suzanne Collins decides to rewrite the first book from the point of view of President Snow. Don’t laugh, it seems to be the prevailing trend.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Dressmaker

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21/11/15

Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage is back in Dungatar, Australia. It’s a dreary, small-minded nothing of a place,  but there are demons to confront and scores to settle, and Tilly won’t rest until she’s righted those old wrongs. There’s magic (and marijuana) in her fancy-fabric bag, and – armed with her trusty Singer – she stitches up the spiteful mob.

The Dressmaker starts off wonderfully, with languid, hazy landscapes stretching out across the screen. Tilly (the ever-fabulous Kate Winslet), is as incongruous as they come, bringing glamour and a swagger to a tired, washed-out town. It’s a cartoonish, fairy-tale-ish film, with the characters writ large – and, at least to begin with – this is part of its charm. There are echoes of Edward Scissorhands here, both in the storytelling style, and in the bold, broad-strokes design. Tilly ‘rescues’ the town’s women with preposterous costumes; before long, they’re all tiptoeing along the dusty streets in high heels and cocktail frocks, corseted and primped for the daily drudge. They feel sexy and powerful, but they’re just pawns in Tilly’s game; it’s no coincidence that her own wardrobe becomes more muted as she reels them in.

The cinematography is beautiful; the acting sublime (with excellent support from Judy Davis, Kerry Fox and Hugo Weaving, all on finest form). The first two-thirds of this film are a delight. How disappointing then, to find the story arc fatally disrupted, and a final third that feels ridiculous, hysterical and hideously prolonged. There is a clear ending to this tale, and it occurs at about the eighty-minute mark; thereafter it’s an incoherent mess – and it can’t recover from this flaw.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield