Month: March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane



You have to hand it to J.J. Abrams. The original Cloverfield was arguably one of the best shakey-cam horror films ever, a creature feature that starred a giant alien, venting its wrath on New York (with particular reference to the Statue of Liberty). Interestingly, Abrams managed to sneak the film out under the radar, meaning that nobody had an inkling about its existence until the first trailers appeared in cinemas. With 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s somehow managed to repeat the trick, despite all the attention focused upon him because of a certain little Star Wars movie. So how does this film (produced by Abrams and directed by Dan Trachtenberg) relate to the first story? Well, interesting question…

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) falls out with her boyfriend, climbs into her car and drives off into the night. Then she’s involved in a sudden and quite shocking accident. When she wakes up, she’s being kept prisoner in the underground bunker of survivalist Howard (John Goodman) who tells her that there’s been an ‘attack’ above ground and that everybody up there is dead. She’s then introduced to Emmett (John Gallagher Jnr) a local guy with a broken arm, who has taken refuge with Howard and pretty much confirms his story. The three of them, it seems, could be stuck down there for years, but luckily Howard has laid in plenty of provisions… including a selection of jigsaw puzzles.

The film divides, more or less, into three distinct sections – the first third is a mystery (what really is going on above ground? Is Howard telling the truth or is he actually some kind of power-crazy nut job with a hidden agenda?) Part two slips effortlessly into psychological thriller territory, as Michelle  discovers some unpalatable truths about Howard and plans her escape. And part three… well, it would be criminal to give too much away, but suffice to say that the film, brilliantly scripted by John Campbell and Matthew Stuecken) expertly and repeatedly pulls the rug out from under you, until you barely know what to expect next. Despite its cross-genre nature, its a riveting ride from start to finish.

As good as the first film? Yes. It’s so different and yet, in its own way, it’s another absolute corker. Go see it and be prepared for surprises.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney


Dick Tracy



The Lowry, Salford Quays

Dick Tracy was, of course, the yellow-raincoat wearing star of the classic 1930s cartoon strip by Chester Gould. Over the years, the story has been adapted into many forms -it’s been a popular, long-running radio serial, it’s been filmed (most famously by Warren Beatty and Madonna) and now  the physical comedy team, Le Navet Bete offer us their take on the story, a whip-smart, endearingly funny slice of full-on slapstick that soon has the audience at the Lowry laughing at every turn. This is irresistibly silly stuff with enough jokes and pratfalls to keep everyone royally entertained.

It’s hard to believe that there are only four actors in the cast, such is the dizzying range of characters they portray, using costume, songs, masks and a whole variety of accents. At the story’s start, Alphonse ‘Big Boy’ Caprice has been slammed in the cooler after a failed attempt to kidnap Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart. When he is finally released, however, he announces that he is going ‘legit’ along with his henchmen, Flattop and Cueball. Pretty soon he has them selling lemonade and kittens. But of course, it’s all part of a fiendishly cunning plan. Caprice enlists his girlfriend, Careless Whisper (yes, really!) to frame Tracy for setting fire to an orphanage, leaving the bad guys free to weave their wicked plans for the city of Detroit.

There’s so much here to enjoy. The script, written collaboratively by the cast, contains enough zippy one liners and full-on groan-makers to please the most exacting of audiences – and the ingenious use of props never fails to delight. I particularly enjoyed the motor cycle which appeared to be made from a wheel, a pair of handlebars and a hair dryer on full blast! Annoyingly, we chanced upon Le Navet Bete towards the end of a long run of Dick Tracy – there’s just one last performance at Luton Library Theatre on the 26th March (if you’re in the area, don’t dare miss it!) and they will present a new show, their own take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth on the 7th, 8th and 9th of April. If it’s anything like as good as DT, it will be well worth seeking out..

We arrived at the theatre tonight feeling pretty sorry for ourselves and left with great big smiles on our faces. You really can’t ask for more than that.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Witches

THE WITCHESCurve Theatre Leicester


The Lowry, Salford Quays

Looking around at the eager audience for tonight’s show, it’s evident that this isn’t really aimed at our demographic. There’s a lot of very young children in the seats and they seem to be having a whale of a time. As well they might, because this is Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a co-production between Leicester Curve and Rose Theatre, Kingston. It all begins with a jolly song, performed by the seven-strong cast, but within a few minutes, Boy (Fox Jackson-Keen, looking disturbingly like a young David Walliams) has been orphaned and gone to live with Grandma (Karen Mann) in Norway, where she tells him all about real-life witches and how to identify them.

But the educational authorities insist that Boy must return to England to continue his studies, so he and Grandma decamp to the UK and shortly afterwards, go on holiday to a hotel in Bournmouth. It is here that a convention of witches meets every year to discuss business, overseen by the Grand High Witch (a sneeringly malevolent Sarah Ingram) who has engineered a plan to turn all children in the vicinity into mice.

This is a sprightly production, that plays Dahl’s witches more for laughs than for menace. Just about everybody on stage has a go on some kind of musical instrument (Jackson-Keen even throws in a few somersaults) and the cast have quite a bit to do to flesh out a whole range of colourful characters. But there are certain elements here that don’t quite gel. As any self-respecting  Dahl fan will tell you, witches are bald and hide the fact by donning elaborate wigs – so it is somewhat confusing when the clearly hirsute witches are ordered to remove their wigs… and actually put some elaborate ones on – furthermore, the play’s big climax simply needs more bodies to get across the idea that all the witches are transforming, not just their leader. (Maybe the filmed sequences used elsewhere might have been utilised to flesh out this important scene?) Having said that, there was a rather splendid ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ moment where one character sank into a tureen of soup and Bruno (Kieran Urquhart) raised the night’s biggest laughs by denying that he had turned into a mouse, despite having ears, whiskers and a long tail. ‘You are a mouse!’ screamed one little girl, delightedly. And she was clearly right on that score.

One for the youngsters then, but perhaps lacking the nuanced layers that would have kept the parents a tad more engaged. Dahl is still one of the country’s most treasured authors (mostly because he delights in putting his young protagonists through absolute hell) and he was never one to shy away from uncomfortable scenes. A pity then, that an unremittingly  Dahl moment towards the play’s conclusion is somewhat neutered by a cheesy song straight afterwards, but hey, the kids aren’t complaining and this one is definitely for them.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney






In a relatively short career, British director Ben Wheatley has produced an interesting selection of films, all quite different but all in their own way, intriguing. High-Rise, an adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, represents the flowering of that talent. Here is a film so packed with interesting ideas, it sometimes threatens to explode in all directions, as Wheatley throws idea after idea into the mix and hits the ‘mix’ button. While the end result is far from perfect, it’s never less than riveting. I’ve read that David Cronenberg planned to film this back in the day and it’s easy to see the attraction – some of the scenes here put me in mind of his debut feature, Shiver; but having said that, this is Wheatley’s vision and for the most part it works beautifully.

Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a massive high rise apartment and attempts to make friends with the neighbours. They include the promiscuous Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a belligerent TV documentary maker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss). It’s clear from the very start that Laing doesn’t quite fit in, but he clearly intends to give it his best shot. He is soon summoned up to the penthouse to meet the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who has created a lavish rooftop garden for his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) complete with flocks of sheep and a white horse for her to ride. At first, it all goes relatively smoothly, but when the tenants on the lower floors start to encounter electricity blackouts and food shortages, it’s not long before rebellion begins to spread irresistibly upwards, resulting in outbreaks of pillaging, looting and the weirdest Abba cover version you’ve ever heard.  The toffs in the top floors decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands and set about commandeering everything they can get their hands on. Laing (a typically amoral Ballard antihero), watches it all with a detached air but eventually finds himself drawn into the chaos as he tries to survive as best he can.

Ballard’s story is an obvious allegory about class and privilege and the ways in which society has to adapt to changing circumstances in order to continue. Wheatley, working as ever with his writer companion, Amy Jump, has cleverly opted to set the story in the 70s, just like the source novel, creating wonderful sets of brutalist architecture, together with some quite horrific fashion statements. The first forty minutes of this zips along with complete confidence and looks absolutely ravishing; the last third is perhaps a little less sure of itself, but having said that, there are more great ideas on offer here than you’ll see in most Hollywood movies and once again, the pace rarely falters.

The conclusion (which features the voice of Margaret Thatcher) will have you discussing the film’s message long after the final credits have rolled. Please don’t miss this one, it really is rather fabulous.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney



The Witch: A New England Folktale



New England, 1630. William (Ralph Ineson) is so pious he’s even managed to incur the wrath of the Puritan community in which he and his family reside and finds himself summarily banished. Undeterred, he packs up his wife and five children into a rickety wooden cart and heads off into the wilderness, eventually arriving at a remote plot of land bordering a forest where he sets up home. Before anyone can say, ‘bad idea,’ the family’s youngest son, a baby, disappears and since he was under the care of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), she is largely held responsible. The family assume a wolf has taken her but the audience has already witnessed the baby’s rather grisly demise, so we know that there’s something very unpleasant lurking in the undergrowth, something decidedly witch-shaped. There’s also ‘Black Philip,’ a he-goat, who definitely knows rather more than any ordinary goat should.

Writer/director Robert Eggar’s low-budget tale sets itself some awkward elements to overcome. For one thing, the dialogue is rendered in authentic Olde English, with lashings of thees and thous and while this is probably more accurate than having the characters speak in a more contemporary way (as Arthur Miller did, in The Crucible, the masterpiece to which this story will inevitably be compared) it does make for difficult viewing, as does the funereal pace at which much of the action unfolds. Though the film successfully creates an atmosphere of steadily mounting dread, it’s never in the least bit scary. Ultimately, this seems to be all about the perils of religion. Poor William is so intent on begging God’s forgiveness for every little misdemeanour, he rather overlooks the bigger picture, until of course it all goes horribly pear-shaped – the eldest son encounters something worrying in the forest, the remaining kids start having fits and their mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) finds herself breast-feeding a crow. And the inevitable question remains; is Thomasin as innocent as she seems to believe she is?

The Witch has arrived garlanded with acclaim and to be fair, it’s a creditable full length debut by Eggars, but it is at its strongest when (like The Crucible) it is ambiguous. Scenes that confirm our worst fears rather seem to undermine the film’s creepy intentions. So while I would encourage anyone to go and see this, to judge for themselves, I have to confess to being a little disappointed with the end product.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Merry Wives



The Lowry, Salford Quays

The Merry Wives of Windsor must be one of Shakespeare’s most rumbustious comedies. Northern Broadsides, as the name might suggest, have their own unique take on the play. Set somewhere in the north of England, complete with regional accents (not a spot of RP in sight) and with a delightful 20s setting, this is like the immortal bard crossed with a Brian Rix farce. It’s fast, furious and laugh-out-loud funny – indeed, as an object lesson in making Shakespeare accessible to a contemporary audience, it’s hard to imagine how it could be bettered.

There’s surely little need to explain the plot. Suffice to say that lascivious blowhard, Sir John Falstaff, sets his amorous gaze on a couple of married ladies and they decide to exact a complicated revenge on him. There are a few small adjustments to the script. The fat woman of Brentford becomes the fat woman of Ilkley and I swear I heard mention of a marriage in Skipton, but otherwise this is pretty much the text, as written.

Broadsides veteran Barrie Rutter takes on the role of Falstaff with great relish, managing to make him a buffoon, but also evoking sympathy for his ultimate humiliation. As the wives themselves, Beckly Hindley and Nicola Sanderson are delightfully mischievous, while as Mistress Quickly, Helen Sheals seems to be channelling the late, great Hylda Baker. A word too about Jos Vantyler, who manages to portray feckless ninny, Abraham Slender in a style that would have made Rix suitably envious.

But it’s important to note that there are no weak links here. The eighteen strong cast are rock solid as they move smoothly from scene to scene and the play’s running time seems to just fly by. In what is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here is a cracking example of why his work still speaks so eloquently across the ages. If you think you’ve seen every possible variation on Shakespearian comedy, think again.

This really is an absolute delight.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Virgilio’s Pizzeria and Portuguese Grill


Colwyn Bay, North Wales


We were invited to a family birthday and the chosen location was Virgilio’s, which is tucked away on a quiet street in Colwyn Bay, where it has been a popular venue for many years. It features a pleasant, trattoria-style dining area, lively and bustling on the Saturday evening we attended and serviced by attentive staff. Though Portuguese in origin (the family originally came from Madeira) there’s also a wide selection of Italian dishes and Gluten-free food is available on request.

For starters, I chose some Spare Ribs, a generously sized portion swimming in a piquant sticky barbecue sauce. I made very short work of it and there was much licking of fingers in the process. (Try not to do it, it’s hard!) Susan chose a bowl of Mussels, seasoned in garlic and coriander and offered with a choice of cream or tomato sauces (she opted for the latter). The mussels were cooked perfectly, light, zesty, a splendid appetiser.

For the main course, I went for Spaghetti Carbonara, something of a default order for me whenever pasta is on offer. I love a good carbonara and they can be surprisingly hard to find, but this one was particularly satisfying, thick and gloopy, with crisp crunchy bacon and plenty of parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. Susan decided on another Italian classic, Lasagna Al Forno. This too was delicious, cooked with a white wine sauce and topped with a thick layer of mozzarella, it came accompanied by a couple of slices of garlic bread. Glancing around the other diners, I saw that a couple of people had selected Espetada Carne, long skewers of cubed rump steak, marinated with rock salt, bay leaves and garlic. It looked great but sadly, nobody was offering me a taste! Up at the top of the table there was a whole Sea Bream, which appeared to be very well cooked and presented and the vegetarians among the party had chosen a Fungi Stroganoff and various types of Pizza, all of which looked pretty good. One point that I particularly liked was that everything that came to the table arrived piping hot, which isn’t always the case in trattoria dining.

The wine and beer flowed and spirits were high. Susan had baked a rather fancy cake, so there was no need to order dessert, but I enjoyed my visit to Virgilio’s and would go again, like a shot.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney





Writer/director Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most original and intriguing films of recent years – Inside John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synechdoche New York, to name but three. When I tell you that Anomalisa is created using stop frame animation, you may have preconceptions of what it’s going to be like, but I’d advise you to go along with an open mind, because in my humble opinion, there’s never been another film quite like this one. To begin with, the animation techniques employed here are extraordinary, pushing the medium to its very limits. Sometimes, particularly in close up, it’s hard to believe that you’re not actually watching real actors. And there’s something about seeing such human tragedy enacted by puppets that somehow serves to amplify the reality of the situation.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is going through a long dark night of the soul. He feels alienated from his wife and young son and stumbles through a world where everyone seems to have the same face. This is doubly unfortunate, because he’s a motivational speaker and the author of a critically acclaimed self-help book aimed at business people, intended to teach them how to deal more effectively with their customers. Michael embarks on a trip to Cincinnati where he is to deliver a keynote speech and his journey unfolds in more-or-less real time, capturing the alienating experience perfectly – the meaningless chatter of a taxi driver, the disturbingly beatific gaze of a hotel receptionist, the disconcerting anonymity of a hotel room. Michael contacts an old flame, who he hasn’t seen for years, in the hope that he’ll rekindle some passion with her, but it ends badly. She clearly still harbours a grudge. Shortly afterwards, he chances upon Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) an avid fan who has come all the way from Akron, Ohio to catch his speech. Sensing an opportunity, Michael embarks on a clumsy seduction…

There are only three voice artists at work here – Tom Noonan handles all the other roles, male and female, a move which at first seems like an affectation, but as the story moves increasingly  into a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak condition of human interaction, it all begins to make a lot more sense. A fumbling and protracted sex scene between Michael and Lisa may perversely be the most realistic coupling ever committed to the big screen, and the bleak tragedy of the film’s conclusion is particularly resonant. I sat there mesmerised throughout.

Mind you, it’s not to everyone’s taste. A woman in the row behind us loudly proclaimed that it was ‘the worst movie she’d ever seen.’ Well, she’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but I have to disagree most vehemently. Anomalisa (co-directed with Duke Johnson) may just be Kaufman’s masterpiece and much as I liked Inside Out, I can’t help feeling that this was a more worthy contender for that animation Oscar. Go see what you think, but whatever you feel about the merits of Kaufman’s work, I think you’ll have to agree that this is a film like no other.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Crucible



Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Arthur Miller’s classic play is deservedly acclaimed and because it’s such a popular production, over the years I’ve seen it in many guises: decked out in Armani suits and set in an open plan office, dressed 50s style to mirror the McCarthy anticommunist blacklists that Miller’s play so cunningly alludes to…. and, most recently,  at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, where some of the events were startlingly framed in the midst of a pool of rising water. So it’s oddly refreshing to witness the Lyceum’s no-gimmicks production, the simple set and period costumes supporting rather than overwhelming Miller’s dazzling text.

And it does dazzle, despite its familiarity, taking off with an incisive, urgent tone that never loses pace as it motors along to its tragic conclusion. The ensemble cast, some twenty actors in total, never put a foot wrong. It’s hard to single out individuals, but Meghan Tyler shines as Abigail Williams, Philip Cairns is perfectly cast as John Proctor and Irene Allan is utterly convincing as poor, doomed Elizabeth Proctor. I liked the simplicity of Michael Taylor’s set with the grey outlines of a forest forever in the background, hinting at the pagan world that surrounds this little outpost of Christianity; and I got chills, exactly as I should, when John Proctor finally refuses to give his name to the document that will save him from hanging.

If you think you’ve already seen everything The Crucible has to offer, think again. When it’s performed with this much panache it’s almost like seeing if for the first time.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Hail Caesar



Ah, the Coen Brothers! The directorial duo who dollar-for-dollar have given me more great cinematic viewing that just about anyone else currently working in Hollywood. When they are fully on the button – Fargo, Blood Simple, True Grit, they are pretty much unbeatable; and even their rare misfires – The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, have more wit and invention about them than most of the competition.

If Hail Caesar isn’t quite up there with their very finest work, it nevertheless comes pretty damned close. Set in 1951 when the movie industry was bracing itself for the impact of the burgeoning medium of television, this film is an affectionate look at the tail end of the ‘dream factory,’ complete with whip smart parodies of the kind of cheesy entertainment that was popular at that time.

Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood ‘fixer.’ His chief concern at the moment is the titular biblical epic, starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman centurion who encounters the true Christ and is transformed by the event. A bit further down the priority list, Mannix is charged with the task of finding a husband for DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannsson) an Esther Williams-style bathing beauty-cum-movie star who has inconveniently got herself pregnant and is now failing to fit into her mermaid’s tail. Meanwhile, amiable cowboy-star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is struggling with an unsuitable role in an upper class romance directed by Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes) – (the line ‘Would that it t’were so simple’ is something that’s going to stay with you long after the credits have rolled) and to cap everything, all-singing, all-dancing Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is actually… well, that would be telling.

Matters come to a head when Whitlock is kidnapped and held to ransom for reasons that are much more complicated than you might reasonably expect. As is so often the case, the Coens have gleefully cast Clooney as another in a long line of handsome dullards, a role he delivers with conviction, but much of the pleasure here is derived from spotting big stars in cameo roles, giving their all in scenes from imaginary period movies. You’ll smile, mostly because though there’s evidently a touch of lampoonery in the telling, it’s so artfully done, the parodies could almost pass muster as the real McCoy.

Hail Caesar is a constant delight and perhaps more significantly, here is a film that simply could not have come from any other American film-makers. The Cohens, having spent some time now on much more serious scripts, are cutting loose and having a bit of fun. The result is a hoot.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney