Month: January 2016

The Big Short

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31/01/15

Another day, another Oscar nominated film. The Big Short appears to be a lot of people’s favourite to lift the best movie gong this year and it’s certainly accomplished. It takes a long hard look at one of the most shameful periods of recent American history – the years leading up to the American housing crisis and the subsequent crash of Wall Street’s biggest banks. More specifically, it homes in those individuals who saw the crash coming and made millions by betting that it would happen.

The first person to spot the looming bubble is Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an autistic Capital Hedge Fund Manager, who invests heavily on what he believes is a certainty. Others soon follow suit, including Mark Baum (Steve Carell) whose own self-loathing makes it difficult for him to exploit the opportunity, but he does it anyway, mostly at the behest of wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). There’s even a couple of enterprising kids who want to have a punt and who call on ex-trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them into the game. The witty script does a great job of explaining complicated (and it must be said, quite boring) financial manoeuvres in a way that everyone can understand and I liked the way that characters often break off in mid conversation, in order to talk directly to the camera. But if there’s a major problem with the film, it’s this – it’s very hard to root for characters who are self-serving assholes looking to make their fortunes from the misfortunes of ordinary people. OK, I appreciate these are the nearest to ‘good guys’ we’ll find in this story, but they only seem reasonable because the bankers they’re up against are so utterly and irredeemably despicable. And if that concept rankles, then this may not be the film for you.

When the crash eventually comes, the fallout is terrible, but even worse is the fact that the guilty parties don’t go to gaol, as they clearly should, but instead pay themselves massive bonuses and then look for other ways to exploit their customers. The Big Short is doubtless an important film and one that hits its intended targets with ease, but it’s also a hard film to like. For the big prize, I’d love to see Mad Max: Fury Road (unlikely) or The Revenant take the best movie gong. Could The Big Short be the one to win it? Get your bets in now, before the odds begin to shorten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Spotlight

Unknown

30/01/16

Spotlight arrives in the UK amidst much speculation that it could win an Oscar this year. It’s easy to see why. This true-life tale of the Boston Globe’s attempts to lift the lid on a despicable case of corruption, perpetrated by the Catholic church, would be riveting stuff even if it wasn’t based on a true story.

The title refers to a four-person team of reporters charged with seeking out stories of special interest to the residents of Boston. When they hear about an adult victim who claims to have been molested by a Catholic priest back in his childhood, and moreover, complaining that his appeals for help went unheeded, they begin to ask questions. But right from the start there are potential problems. Boston is a staunchly Catholic community, so there will be many who would prefer things to be kept under the carpet. Furthermore, it’s 2001 and the newspaper industry is struggling with the depredations of the internet. A new boss, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) has just been appointed and many people in the industry are worried for their jobs. But Baron recognises a potential scoop when he sees one and assigns  Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team to do some digging. When they do they are increasingly amazed and horrified by the scale of the subterfuge. Could there really be as many as 90 paedophile priests in Boston alone?

The film expertly avoids sensationalism and drives home the message that such investigations are the result of months and months of donkeywork, reading through endless files, knocking on doors, pursuing every possible lead. There are excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucchi, but this is an ensemble piece, with not a weak performance to be seen. The film’s conclusion, when the full scale of the problem is finally uncovered, is frankly staggering and will surely make the most committed Catholics question their faith in an institution that will go to such lengths to harbour the guilty. It’s important too, to mention, that the Spotlight team are not presented as four saints in shining armour, but as committed reporters who will go to any lengths to get their scoop.

Shocking, but compelling, Spotlight has earned its place as one of the films of the year.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Locus Amoenus

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8/01/16

Studio Theatre, The Lowry

Atresbandes are a young theatre company from Barcelona and ‘Locus Amoenus’ is a term used to describe an idealised paradise, something that we all long for, even though our personal interpretations of such a paradise may differ wildly. We catch the company’s latest production towards the start of their UK tour and we’re very impressed with what we see.

The simple set represents the interior of a train and as the three actors take their seats, we’re informed, via a screen at the back of the set, that they are all going to die in a freak accident in one hour. As the action unfolds we’re horribly aware that time is rapidly running out for them. If this sounds dour, don’t be misled, because what follows is a sprightly mixture of techniques, much of it performed without dialogue and often laugh-out-loud funny. Microphones are placed around the set to emphasise sounds – a sequence where one character repeatedly zips and unzips the various compartments of her rucksack is particularly effective and much milage is made from the fact that one character speaks only English, one only Spanish and the third is bi lingual and has to act as an interpreter for the other two. The piece is beautifully precise and understated – incidents that seem at first baffling, are explained as the action progresses. As the clock ticks inexorably away, a countdown appears on the screen and the final stretch becomes almost unbearably suspenseful.

This is accomplished theatre that deserves a wider audience. Atresbandes will be at the Gulbenkian, Canterbury on the 29th January and can be seen thereafter at the Warwick Arts Centre, The Hub Leeds, Lighthouse Poole, the Square Chapel Halifax and the Derby Theatre. They will finish their tour with three days at the Camden People’s Theatre on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of March. If you’re close to any of these venues and you fancy something a little out of the ordinary, do take the opportunity to see this delightful production. You won’t be disappointed.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Testament of Youth

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27/01/16

What a useful thing Netflix is; a handy way of catching up with all those movies you somehow managed to miss on the big screen. Testament of Youth is one such film. Overshadowed by bigger, brasher options on its initial release, it slipped quietly through the multiplexes of our green and pleasant land, making barely a ripple. Luckily, it works well enough on the small screen. Based on Vera Brittain’s landmark book, we first meet Vera (Alicia Vikander) on Armistice day, looking decidedly distraught, while all around her are celebrating. Then we slip back in time to discover the string of incidents that have brought her to such a state.

Here is an England of eternal summers, where the upper classes bathe in lakes and wander in meadows with barely a care in the world. Vikander certainly looks the part of the English Rose, even if her accent occasionally gives her origins away. Vera is a ‘bluestocking’ who wants nothing more than the chance to study at Oxford, like her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), even if their father (Dominic West) would rather see Vera bashing the keys of a piano and hunting for a suitable husband. But she sticks to her guns and passes the University’s entrance examination. Fairly soon, she meets Roland (her Game of Thrones co-star, Kit Harrington) and love starts to blossom between them. But of course, the advent of World War One is lurking in the wings and with barely a pause for breath, Roland and Edward enlist in the British army and march away to do battle; whereupon, Vera throws in her course at Oxford, enrols as a nurse and eventually ends up at the Front, nursing soldiers, many of them German.

It’s a handsomely mounted film, that manages to resist being too chocolate-boxy – scenes of soldiers with their arms and legs blown off soon see to that – and if it’s not the most hard-hitting dramatisation you’ve ever seen, nevertheless its compelling enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours and to confirm the notion that, yes, war is a terrible thing and wouldn’t we all be a lot better off it the powers-that-be could just agree to get along with each other? If also offers the opportunity to spot a whole string of notable actors in cameo roles, always a bonus.

If like me, you missed this on the big screen, here’s your chance to catch up with it. It’s well worth your attention.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Wit

Unknown

26/01/15

Wit is nobody’s idea of a ‘fun night out at the theatre.’

Indeed, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of middle aged academic, Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh,) who discovers that she has cancer – more specifically, advanced metastatic ovarian cancer – is every bit as bleak as you might expect. I’m certainly offering no spoilers when I tell you that one of Bearing’s first observations, made directly to the audience is that she isn’t going to make it out of the story alive.

Bearing’s speciality is the work of metaphysical poet John Donne, whom she quotes and refers to throughout. She attempts to intellectualise her advancing illness, treating it as though it is something to be studied, observed and reported back on, only to ultimately discover that these things are beyond the scope of such an approach. Death is ultimately the biggest grey area and as she drifts inexorably closer to it, a sense of futility overcomes everything else.

Because of the rarity of her condition, Bearing becomes a sort of prize guinea pig for her doctors, one of whom, Dr Posner (Esh Alladi) is a former student of hers. This elicits one of the play’ss most uncomfortably funny scenes as Posner is obliged to carry out a vaginal examination of the woman who gave him a poor grade for one of his essays. Her conversations with a nurse, Susie Monahan (Jenny Platt) are the only sections where she comes close to revealing anything of herself; and for me that was a problem. In order to fully care about Vivian, I needed to know a little more about her.

In the central role, Hesmondhalgh is extraordinarily good, managing to convey her wisecracking, American character with great aplomb. She is in every scene, so much so that the other actors struggle to make a connection with the audience. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that I didn’t make enough of an emotional connection with the material, while others around me seemed to be visibly affected by what they were watching. At the play’s (admittedly thrilling) conclusion, the audience stood en masse to give a heartfelt standing ovation – but I thought that overall, the cool, detached style of the writing detracted from the potential power of the work. It was evident that the majority of the audience would have disagreed with me on that one.

As we get up to leave, a couple of women to our right, are crying their eyes out. Perhaps they are reflecting on something that has happened in their own lives that stirs such emotions – or maybe we just weren’t on the right wavelength tonight. At any rate, dry-eyed, we head for home.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

John Osborne & Molly Naylor

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23/01/16

The Lowry, Salford Quays

There’s a pleasingly ramshackle quality to tonight’s poetry reading. Not the poetry itself; that’s not ramshackle at all. But this is certainly more about the poems than the performance, and it’s all the better for it.

First up is the shambling, self-effacing – and very engaging – John Osborne. He pulls the sleeves of his jumpers over his hands like a recalcitrant teenager, and tells us about the poetry tour the pair have been on. Tonight’s the final night; they’ve driven up from Norwich. Some of the shows have been sell-outs, he says; another had an audience of only six. He doesn’t seem perturbed. We number about fifty, I think, and we’re an appreciative crowd. We laugh at his jokes. Why not? They’re funny.

The poems are funny too. Not comic pieces, exactly; just wryly amusing. There’s one about being served by a waitress who is ’employee of the month’, for example; another about conducting an affair with a colleague. They’re prose poems, really; little anecdotes, condensed. I like them. They make me smile.

There’s a break, and then it’s Molly Naylor’s turn. She’s a more confident performer, with a stronger stage presence, and the same likeability that made the first half so much fun. Her poems are more crafted too; she plays with form, experiments. There’s a trilogy about love (before, during, after… “Well, sort of during…”), a long piece about beach combing. There are personal anecdotes between poems: she comes from Cornwall; she used to travel to school by boat. (Actually, when she starts this tale, she says, “I used to go to school on a boat.” It takes me a while to realise the boat is the transport, not the institution. I am mildly disappointed.)

I enjoy listening to Naylor. I like the way she reads. The excerpt she shares from her play, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think Of You, is riveting, detailing as it does her experience in London on July 7th 2005: she was on a tube train when it was bombed. It’s the minutiae that make this piece so absorbing: the scarf, the Sainsbury’s toilets, the walk home in the aftermath.

And then they’re gone. No bows, no joint moment, no milking of applause. It’s thank you, goodnight, and off we go.

What a lovely way to spend a Saturday.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Girls

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

19/01/15

The Lowry, Salford Quays

I’ll be honest. I didn’t have high expectations for this. After all, I thought, Calendar Girls had already been a hit film and a successful stage play. The news that author Tim Firth had spent the last couple of years turning it into a musical with his friend, Gary Barlow, suggested that this particular idea had been taken just about as far as it could possibly go. So I’m surprised and delighted to say that The Girls, from its jaunty opening chords onwards, is an unqualified delight, a production that has the word ‘hit’ written all over it. Nor is it the kind of cheesy nonsense that often qualifies a show for such a description.

It’s a  very familiar true life story – how a group of Women’s Institute members in an obscure Yorkshire town, decided to raise money for a local cancer hospital by appearing in a nude calendar. But Firth has opened up the story to give it a wider scope and the wry, witty lyrics seem to have so much to say about the everyday life of ordinary people that you can’t help admiring them. This show surprised me. I hadn’t expected to laugh as hard as I did, nor had I expected to cry quite so much – there are moments here that will wring tears from the coolest people in the audience.

It’s an ensemble piece with an eighteen strong cast, all of whom deliver faultless performances. The main story focuses on the friendship between Annie (Joanna Riding) and Chris (Claire Moore), but every character has a story arc and each one is fully explored. If I have an issue, it’s with the title – the six lead protagonists aren’t ‘girls’ at all but mature women; and when was the last time you saw a musical that offered major roles to so many of them? Roles, more importantly, that treat their subjects with respect even when the women are stripping off for charity. The nudity, by the way, is handled with consummate skill, so it never feels exploitive – you are laughing with the women, not at them and that’s an important distinction.

A word too about Robert Jones’s ingenious set design. What appears at first to be haphazard heaps of painted cupboards and lockers becomes a whole variety of locations, including the hill that overlooks the village of Cracoe where the story is set and, in one memorable driving sequence, the outline of a city at night.

Gary Barlow knows a thing or two about writing a decent pop tune and here’s the proof that he can write show tunes too – you’ll most likely come out of the Lowry humming, whistling or singing one of them. The real life ‘Calendar Girls’ were in the audience for tonight’s performance and I’d say they must have been delighted with the latest incarnation of their remarkable story. Indeed, if this show doesn’t get a West End transfer soon, then I’ll be very surprised. For once, an enthusiastic standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

Who saw that coming?

5 stars

Philip Caveney