Month: January 2016

Hasret (Yearning): Ben Hopkins

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18/01/15

Ben Hopkins seems genuinely pleased. He’s flown in from his home town of Berlin for a special screening of his ‘expressionist’ documentary Hasret (Yearning) at Home, Manchester and it must be gratifying to see a full screening theatre for the event. Hasret is, after all, not the kind of film that usually packs out cinemas. It’s a vibrant love letter to the city of Istanbul and forms the final part of what Hopkins refers to as his ‘Turkish trilogy.’

What appears at first to be a conventional documentary, quickly metamorphoses into much more than that, as elements appear that confirm it is in fact, a kind of meta-fiction. Interspersed with vivid footage shot on the streets of the city, there are elements that appear to have stepped straight out of an MR James story – the unexplained appearance of a ghostly woman in a landscape, a mysterious man who gives Hopkins phone numbers which enable him to speak to dead people. It’s all so cunningly done that you constantly find yourself asking which parts are real and which parts are fake, something that I take up with Ben as we settle ourselves at a table in Home’s second floor bar.

For instance, the film begins with Ben claiming that he was originally commissioned to make a straightforward travel documentary, but was increasingly tempted to go off-brief.’

‘No,’ says Ben, gleefully. ‘That was all lies!’

OK, so how would he describe Hasret?

‘Well, it’s a documentary about Istanbul, but it’s also a documentary about the process of making a documentary. I’m lucky in that I have a body of work that is well-regarded, which allows me to do films like this. For anyone just starting out, the opportunity to make a film about Istanbul that wasn’t just a straightforward travel documentary… well, it would be very difficult. As it is, I struggled to get funding. There’s an element in our televisual culture that edges towards the superficial. Producers would rather see something about the great food on offer, the oysters, the baked goat.’

Amazingly though, we should be aware from the very start that something is up. All that business about Hopkins and his two man crew arriving at their destination in a container ship, because the company that commissioned the film ‘couldn’t afford plane tickets’…

‘Exactly,’ agrees Ben. ‘It would probably be cheaper to fly than to travel that way. I’m saying, right from the beginning, don’t take this entirely seriously.’

There are scenes in the film, I suggest, thinking particularly of the ones shot amidst the city’s late night club scene, that suggest Ben and his team might occasionally have been in danger of being caught up in violence.

‘I’ve been robbed in Istanbul once and ripped off another time, and sure I’ve witnessed a couple of fights, but I’ve never personally felt physically threatened,’ he assured me. “The fights are usually about somebody disrespecting somebody else’s sister and as I don’t go around disrespecting anyone, I usually get by.’

Much of the film is concerned with the gentrification of Istanbul, how some of the oldest parts of the city being bulldozed to create swish new homes for the wealthy. I ask Ben how he feels about that.

‘Very sad,’ he says. ‘’Of course, all cities change and regenerate. This building we’re sitting in now, for instance, is brand new and replaced something that was here before. Sometimes these things are good. Sometimes they’re inevitable. The difference in Turkey is that often there’s an entirely politically motivated intention for the changes… so for instance an area that’s home to communists and shiites will be bulldozered, simply to disperse the people who live there, to teach them a lesson. I’m afraid that happens a bit too often in Turkey.’

I ask Ben if he has anything else in the pipeline.

‘I actually have another film opening in Britain on Friday, called Lost In Karastan. It’s a film I made before this one and I’ll be doing some publicity for that later in the week.’

And given a substantial budget, what would he do next?

‘A horror film,’ he says, without hesitation. He’s clearly a fan of the genre. I ask him is he has an all-time favourite and I’m delighted to learn that it’s one of my favourites too, Jack Clayton’s superb supernatural chiller, The Innocents, a film that these days carries a 12 certificate despite being absolutely terrifying.

I ask if he has already written the screenplay for his horror movie and he smiles and nods. ‘It’s all ready to go,’ he says. ‘All I need now are the actors and…’ He grins ruefully. ‘The budget.’

Ah yes, there’s always the budget.

‘There is,’ he agrees. ‘And that’s the main reason why, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d probably give up film-making.’

‘Really?’ I ask incredulously.

‘Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I love filming, I love writing, I love working with the actors and I love working with the producers. I just hate the process of trying to raise money.’

And with that, he moves on to his next interview and we head out into the night. My feeling is, we should all watch this space. Provided Ben doesn’t win the lottery… and let’s face it, what are the odds? -there should be a really chilling horror film with his name attached heading in our general direction in a year or so. Until then, Hasret is screening in London tonight (19th January) at the Bertha DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, before a wider opening in Turkish cinemas in March, so if you get the chance to go along to the event, please do. It’s a remarkable and enigmatic film that deserves a wider audience.

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

 

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A Little Chaos

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17/01/15

We missed its theatrical release but here it is, courtesy of Netflix, made all the more prescient by the recent death of its much-admired director and star, Alan Rickman. This isn’t quite Rickman’s swan song (there are a couple of films still awaiting release) but given the sadness of the situation, I only wish I could say that I liked A Little Chaos more than I actually did. It’s a polite film, handsomely mounted but lacking power and conflict and moreover, it’s a story that plays fast and loose with history.

King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) is in the process of creating the famous gardens of Versailles and the man appointed to oversee the task is master gardener, Andre Le Not (Matthias Schoenaerts). Realising that it’s too big a job for one person, he decides to apportion certain areas to other contractors and holds interviews for the posts. One applicant is the (completely fictional) Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), trying to make headway in a world dominated by men – the fact that she manages to do so, probably emphasises more than anything else that this really is fiction. Something about her captivates Le Not (it’s definitely not her skills with herbaceous borders) and he assigns her the job of creating a water garden for the King. But as she struggles to carry out the work, she meets with considerable opposition, not least from Le Not’s bitchy wife, Madame Le Not (Helen McRory) who does everything she can to scupper Sabine’s plans. All the while, Sabine is harbouring a secret – a sadness from her past that keeps returning to haunt her.

There’s not much else to report. The inherent bitchiness of Louis’s court is nicely sketched  and there’s a fabulous scene where Sabine encounters the king and mistakes him for a gardener, something that Louis enjoys and encourages. It’s here where you really appreciate Rickman’s qualities as an actor, offering a sleepy, lizard like sensuality that makes the sequence a bit of a standout – but sadly there aren’t enough delights of this quality to carry the film. Winslet is terrific, but then she generally is and Schoenaerts, a Belgian playing a Frenchman, makes a decent fist of an English accent, something he’s obliged to do in order to tie in with everyone else.

And a major problem is, that when we finally see Sabine’s water garden, something she’s laboured on throughout the film, its… well, a little underwhelming.

It’s not a trial to watch – it will provide a diverting hour or so of entertainment – but one can’t help feeling that it might have been more than that. Which given recent circumstances makes the whole thing seem a trifle sad.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Hangmen

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17/01/16

Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Martin McDonagh’s latest play, Hangmen, marks a significant change from his earlier, Ireland-bound dark comedies – but it shares with them an incredible ear for dialogue and an uncanny knack for finding humour in the bleakest of situations. If you thought The Lieutenant of Inishmore pushed this quality as far as it could go, then prepare yourselves to go just a little bit further. If I told you that this play begins with a man pleading for his life, just moments before his execution, you probably wouldn’t expect to be laughing out loud. But trust me, you will be. Originally a Royal Court production, Hangmen has now transferred to the Wyndham Theatre, where it’s playing to packed houses every night and it’s easy to see how it has achieved its ‘hot ticket’ status.

We start in the gaol cell of convicted murderer, Hennessy (Josef Davies), about to be despatched by Britain’s current chief hangman, Harry Wade (David Morrissey). It’s a brief and shocking scene, the humour suddenly extinguished by the brutal execution itself; and then, just as you’re starting to wonder how they will ever manage to change the setting, the entire cell – walls, floor, door and furnishings – rises majestically upwards into the flies, revealing the interior of a pub beneath. It’s a jaw-dropping transition.

It’s now two years later, 1965. Wade is the landlord of a pub in Oldham and the death penalty has just been abolished. Wade is coasting on his former reputation and is still indulging in an old rivalry with the more famous Albert Pierrepoint, also now a pub landlord in nearby Failsworth. Harry has surrounded himself with a coterie of cronies, who, if you’ll forgive the pun, hang on his every word and treat him as some kind of grotesque celebrity. They are not so much customers as his Greek chorus, commenting hilariously on the action and applauding every twisted thing he says.

Matters take a strange turn with the arrival of Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a smooth-talking Southerner, who seems to know a lot about Hennesy, who went to his death protesting his innocence. Mooney applies to lodge at the pub by exerting his charm on Wade’s wife, Alice (Sally Rogers) and, more especially, on his shy daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James). It’s apparent from the word ‘go’ that Mooney knows something and he’s come here to make trouble – but what is his connection to the events of the past?

On the night we attend, there’s a technical fault that means the proceedings have to be briefly halted at a very suspenseful moment. We’re worried this might ruin the experience, but the cast respond brilliantly, snapping straight back into character and taking the action on again, without breaking stride. The concluding scenes wrack up the suspense to almost unbearable levels.

Hangmen is a brilliant production, that deserves every accolade that’s been thrown at it, and it confirms McDonagh as one our finest contemporary playwrights. Tickets are in very short supply, but if you can get hold of one, do so, because this is simply too good to miss.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

 

Fishworks

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Swallow Street, London

16/01/15

We were in London to review a show and decided we’d like to dine afterwards, somewhere we hadn’t tried before. Fishworks have two venues, one in Marylebone and the other on Swallow Street, the latter just a ten minute walk from the Wyndham Theatre. It being a Saturday evening, amidst the general chaos of the Lumiere Festival, we booked in advance a couple of days beforehand. On arrival, we were delighted to see that the venue had its own fishmonger right there on site, a huge marble slad laden with ice and displaying an impressive array of fishy delights, so there was clearly no danger of the ingredients not being fresh enough. The place was packed but our seats were all ready for us and though the tables  were all fairly close to each other, the atmosphere was convivial and the staff pleasant and attentive.

We were 0n a budget so we opted for the set menu, which offered two courses for £18.95 or £21.95 for three, which in the heart of the capital is excellent value. I began with the Brixham fish soup, served with Gruyere croutons and a small bowl of rouille, a light sauce of olive oil, garlic, saffron and chilli peppers. The soup was delicious, thick and smooth, with a real depth of flavour. Susan opted for a bowl of steamed mussels, in a white wine and garlic sauce, served with lemon thyme and shallots. This too was spot on and happily didn’t feature any cream, which is generally the easiest way to spoil a bowl of mussels.

For the main course, I ordered the homemade fishcake with buttered spinach and hollandaise. I’m a big fan of the humble fishcake, but it’s surprising how many chefs manage to get it wrong. How often have we been served something that resembles a deep fried hockey puck? No such problems here, though. The generously proportioned fish cake was light, feathery, delicately spiced and augmented by a  rich Hollandaise sauce, which made it an absolute delight. Susan had the fillet of sea bream, served on a bed of shaved cucumber, with a chilli and mint salad. Again, just as it should be, light, cooked just so. We shared a side portion of chips, which were old-school good, crispy and scrumptious, with no oily aftertaste.

Unusually, we eschewed pudding and both ordered a second glass of the rather pleasant sauvignon blanc that is Fishwork’s house wine. And then it was out onto the street to fight our way through the packed crowds gawping at the illuminations floating in the air above us. We made it back to Euston station by the skin of our teeth.

Fishworks has a lot going for it. If you feel like splashing out, the a la carte offers a selection of more indulgent delights and there’s a daily selection of specials chalked up on boards around the venue. Amidst the ubiquitous chain restaurants that seem to dominate theatre-land, this is a little gem worth seeking out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Revenant

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14/01/16

This time last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu dazzled the cinema-going public with his quirky comedy, Birdman. Now he dazzles us again, with something entirely different – a bleak, gruelling historical drama, based on a real life story, a film that pulses with bone-jarring violence offset by eerily beautiful location photography.  The Revenant looks set to dominate this year’s Oscars and it’s clearly a hard-won victory. At times, the actors look as though they’re going through as gruelling an experience as their screen counterparts. Here is the life of an 1820s fur trapper in all its grimy glory. It doesn’t look an appealing way to make a living.

The story concerns an expedition into the American wilderness in the depths of winter. Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) is the team’s scout and he’s accompanied by his mixed-race son, Hawk (Forest Goodluck). Barely ten minutes into the action, the men are attacked by Arikara warriors and only a handful of them escape with their lives. Matters aren’t helped when, shortly afterwards, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear (a prolonged scene of almost unwatchable savagery) and is left close to death. The team leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleason) decides to strike out for their home base and leaves Glass in the care of seasoned trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and callow youth Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Henry instructs Fitzgerald to give Glass a decent burial when ‘his time comes.’ But Fitzgerald is a survivalist. He murders Hawk and leaves Glass for dead, throwing him into a half dug grave and abandoning him to a slow and painful death. But Glass’s hunger for revenge somehow keeps him alive…

This is the second time the story has inspired a film. In 1971, Man In The Wilderness starring Richard Harris, used the basis of it but changed Glass’s name to Zachary Bass. Inaritu’s film actually sticks closer to the real tale and has the added advantage of Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, his fluid camerawork soaring and sweeping throughout the action to create an almost immersive experience. Often you’ll find yourself closer to the action than is strictly comfortable. In one scene, Glass’s breathing actually fogs the camera lens – in another, blood spatters the screen. And then there are sequences featuring Glass’s fever dreams, strange, hypnotic, almost hallucinatory. It all makes for grim but compelling viewing. Many will be repelled by the extreme violence and a scene where Glass takes refuge from the cold inside a freshly killed horse – yes, you read that right – isn’t going to sit well with any vegetarians in the audience. (Strangely, this isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. It was an old buffalo hunter’s trick to keep warm inside the gutted carcass of a freshly killed bison. Like a fleshy electric blanket).

The Revenant is an extraordinary slice of cinema, an epic story of survival, of man against nature. If Di Caprio ends up lifting the best actor Oscar (despite speaking only a handful of lines in the entire film) I for one won’t begrudge it to him. I’d say he’s earned it, if only in the scene where he’s required to devour a live fish.

Unmissable.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Room

11/01/16

Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of my favourite books of recent times: a terrifying tale of kidnap and abuse, rendered somehow hopeful and life-affirming by its young narrator, Jack. The boy has no idea that the tiny, locked room he lives in is a prison; he thinks it is the world. And the world, as he knows it, is small but full of love. After all, Ma is with him all the time, and she is always good to him.

But it’s a worry – isn’t it ? – when a favourite novel is adapted for the screen. There’s no way a director can ever realise every reader’s vision and, when you’ve constructed clear and absolute impressions of the characters and their environs,  disappointment seems almost inevitable.

Almost. But not quite. Because Emma Donoghue is a bona fide artiste, and she did not merely sell the rights to Room to the highest bidder. Instead, she waited for an offer that allowed her to write the screenplay herself and, oh, am I glad she did. Because Room the movie is just as heartbreaking and affecting as its source material and, although there are of course changes made to suit the form, it seems that very little is compromised. ‘Room’ is just as weirdly claustrophobic, joyous, repellant and homely on film as it is on the page.

Jacob Tremblay, as Jack, is a revelation. He’s expressive and appealing and extremely natural; hats off to director Lenny Abrahamson for eliciting this performance from such a  young actor. And Brie Larson is marvellous too, delivering a subtle but curiously intense and credible portrayal of Joy, a young woman who has, against such overwhelming odds, managed to create a happy childhood for her beloved little boy.

OK, so maybe there are a couple of scenes that could have teased out some more tension (when Old Nick drops Jack, for example), and it would have been nice to have seen William H. Macy’s part developed into something more, but these are minor quibbles in the face of an affecting and engaging film.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Theatre Bouquets 2015

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We saw some fantastic theatre in 2015. Here, in order of viewing, are our favourite productions of the year.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

A production so enchanting, funny, lively and, yes, engaging (sorry) that no one in the audience could fail to feel its impact, Mark Thomson’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was Brechtian theatre at its very best.

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The Venetian Twins – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

A farce majeure, beautifully played, timed to precision and rib ticklingly funny from start to finish, The Venetian Twins was proof indeed that farce doesn’t need to be toe-curling; it can be a thing of beauty too.

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Funfair – Home, Manchester

HOME’s inaugural production, Funfair by Simon Stephens, was a dazzling box of delights, a real multi-media event that employed lights, shadows, live rock music, back and front projection, masks, movement and a central turntable  used to stunning visual effect.

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The Skriker – Royal Exchange, Manchester

The Skriker was a screaming, hurtling explosion of a play. Caryl Churchill’s script was frightening, angry, funny and weird and Maxine Peake was perfectly cast as the shape-shifting fairy, inhabiting each persona completely.

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Charolais -Spotlites, Edinburgh Festival

Written and performed by Noni Stapleton, Charolais was an unlikely comedy about a young Irish woman and the jealousy she felt towards a beautiful heifer. It was an unusual tale, as beautifully written as it was acted: a one-woman performance that not only made us laugh and cry, but also brought to life a horny cow.

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Lungs, Roundabout, Edinburgh Festival

On a grey, rainy day in Edinburgh, Paines Plough’s productions of Lungs by Duncan Macmillan was a breath of fresh air. The witty, sparkling script picked us up by the scruff of the neck and hurled us along in a series of perfectly created flash-forwards as the central couple argued, chattered, broke up and made up again.

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Filthy Talk For Troubled Times, Venue 106, Edinburgh Festival

Phantom Owl’s actors were seriously top-notch, and Matthew Lillard’s direction was flawless too: the choreography looked effortless but was perfectly orchestrated. The atmosphere was wonderfully tawdry and menacing – Neil LaBute’s script brought expertly to life.

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Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) Home, Manchester

Kneehigh’s reputation precedes them: we knew before the show began that we were in for an energetic, multi-disciplined, high-octane experience, and were well-prepared to be dazzled by what we saw. We were not disappointed!

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Golem, Home, Manchester

The story of the Golem might be traditional, but this production, by experimental theatre company 1927, was anything but. Execution was key here: the perfect meld of acting, animation and music created a surreal, dreamlike world and we could only marvel at the degree of precision that must have been required to bring this extraordinary production together.

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Jane Eyre, National Theatre, London

The National Theatre’s Jane Eyre was a dynamic interpretation, eschewing the rigid formula of a period drama in favour of a more holistic view of the novel. This made for a surprisingly faithful telling of the narrative: free from the confines of a naturalistic set and strict chronology, director Sally Cookson created space for Jane’s whole story to be centre stage.

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Lord of the Flies, Lowry, Salford

A superb adaptation of a literary masterpiece,Anthony Sheader’s Lord of the Flies was a delight from start to finish. And plaudits to choreographer, Jonathan Holby, who co-ordinated the movements of the large cast flawlessly, regularly cutting between normal speed and slo-motion to display simultaneous events – building steadily to a thrilling conclusion.

Susan Singfield