Month: May 2016

Love & Friendship

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29/05/16

Cameo, Edinburgh

Love & Friendship is an amalgamation of two early novellas (Lady Susan and Love and Freindship [sic]), penned by the esteemed Jane Austen when she was still in her teens. It’s a witty, acerbic tale, and seems true to the spirit of this oft-misunderstood writer in a way that many screen adaptations of her work do not. Romance, here, is never really the point; we don’t really care who marries whom. Instead, this is a satire: a deliciously wry examination of how people manipulate social mores.

Kate Beckinsale, as Lady Susan, is superbly cast. She is undoubtedly a venal fiend, and yet we root for her because… well, why not? She’s attractively rebellious and unrepentant in her selfishness, and – if some men are idiotic enough to fall for her games – then really, more fool them.

Most engagingly foolish of all is Tom Bennett’s James Martin, an affable buffoon, whose lack of intelligence is more than compensated by the size of his estate. Bennett milks his role’s comic potential, clearly relishing the chance to ask, in all seriousness, which of the twelve commandments he is allowed to break.

Oh, it’s a slight film all right, like Austen’s books,”a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” – but it’s crammed full with such verve and vivacity that it’s hard to think of a more engaging way to spend an afternoon. Especially when we’re in the delightful environs of Edinburgh’s oldest and most loved cinema, the superb Cameo, where we’ve recently become members.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

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The Night Watch

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24/05/16

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Based on Sarah Waters Booker-nominated novel, Hattie Naylor’s intriguing adaptation of The Night Watch relates a series of interwoven stories, pitched against the setting of the Second World War and its aftermath. The play’s ingenious set comprises two large turning circles, the outer rim moving anti clockwise, the inner in the opposite direction. The two circles are constantly in motion and they effectively mirror the unfolding story, which, as in the novel, is told in reverse chronological order – the play’s first half is set in 1947; in the second, events skip back to 1944, to London’s ‘little blitz’, before finally arriving in the carnage of 1941. It’s a brilliant piece of staging and of course, this being the Royal Exchange, it has one final trick up its sleeve – happily, not the water feature that has been rather overused in recent productions, but a simple and effective device that it would be a crime to reveal.

The central protagonist, Kay  (Jodie McNee) is gay at a time when lesbianism is still considered an aberration. During the war years she works as an ambulance woman and afterwards finds it hard to recover her sense of purpose. Her former partner, Helen (Kelly Hotten) is now living with Julia (Lucy Briggs-Owen) herself once a girlfriend of Kay’s. Meanwhile, Duncan (Joe Jameson), who was jailed as a conscientious objector during the war, reconnects with Robert (Ben Addis), now a journalist, who is shocked to discover that his old friend is lodging with their former gaoler, retired prison officer, Mr Mundy (Christopher Ettridge). This first half throws out a lot of questions about the various characters and how their stories relate to each other, and many of those questions remain unanswered until the second half, when the pace accelerates, until we finally hurtle  into the single momentous event that kicked everything into motion.

The performances here are exemplary and there’s something quite mesmerising in the way the actors seem to float constantly around the stage on the rotating circles, allowing us to see them from every possible angle as they reveal more and more about what makes them tick. The evocations of different settings with the use of a few simple props are masterfully done, while sound designer, Dan Jones has done a great job of bringing the soundscape of the Blitz to vivid life.

This is an assured and satisfying production that succeeds on many levels. Enjoy.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Son Of Saul

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23/05/16

Laszlo Nemes’s Auschwitz-based film has picked up several awards, since winning the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, including the best foreign language movie at the 2016 Oscars; and there’s no doubting the uncompromising, gut-wrenching nature of the film. But the bleak setting and barbaric behaviour exhibited throughout the story make this not so much a movie to enjoy as to endure.

Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a member of the notorious Sonderkommando, the unit of Jewish captives who worked alongside their Nazi jailers to help expedite the deaths of millions of their fellow prisoners. The reason they agreed to do this? To extend their own lives for a few more months, because they knew with a dread certainty that every so often, large numbers of them would be executed and fresh prisoners enlisted to their ranks. Going about this thankless business one day, Saul chances upon a dying boy, somebody he believes to be his own illegitimate son. Seized by the overpowering notion that the child must have a decent burial at all costs, Saul sets about finding a rabbi to perform the necessary ceremony, risking his life (and the lives of many of his closest friends, who are in the closing stages of mounting an escape plan and need Saul to help with their plans). In his desperate scramble to honour his dead son, Saul is flirting with disaster.

Son of Saul is a claustrophobic movie, shot in an almost square frame, the camera following Saul from scene to scene as he moves frantically through a series of hellish locations that could have emerged from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The hideous daily grind of his work is depicted (thankfully) largely as a barely glimpsed blur, a pile of heaped bodies here, a roadside execution there – somehow not seeing it in detail makes it far worse than it already is. And it’s about as bad as it can get. This is immersive cinema at its most distressing and the very futility of what Saul is trying to achieve oppresses you, even as you sit there, wanting to look away, but somehow unable to do it. At a time when the world seems to be moving inexorably back  to the kind of conditions that nurtured the Nazi cause in the first place, these events are doubly distressing.

I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it – but I can see exactly why it was made and why it should be seen by as many people as possible. Films like this remind us of the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink. If the journey is an unpleasant one, it nonetheless needs to be undertaken, in the vague hope that the human race might come to it’s collective senses and sure that such things are never allowed to happen again.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Sing Street

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22/05/16

Films about pop music are notoriously hard to do; many directors have fallen by the wayside when trying to put such a concept together, but John Carney has already pulled it off twice, first with the delightful (and appropriately named), Once, and more recently with the criminally underrated Begin Again. So can he really hope to do it a third time?

The answer is, unreservedly, yes. Sing Street just might be his finest effort to date, even though the setting, theme (and one particular member of the cast) will inevitably draw comparisons with The Commitments.

In 1980s Dublin, troubled teenager Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself withdrawn from his private school and thrown upon the tender mercies of the Christian Brothers, on nearby Synge Street, after his parents’ relationship begins to fall apart and the family fortunes are hit by the deepening recession. At the new school, Cosmo experiences bullying at the hands of some of the older kids and more upsettingly, by the obnoxious Brother Baxter (Don Wycherly) who rules the place with an iron cassock. However, a chance encounter with the enigmatic Raphina (Lucy Boynton) gives Cosmo some new purpose in life, when he impulsively invites her to appear in a video for ‘his band.’ One small problem there – he doesn’t actually have a band yet – so, without further ado, he seeks out interested parties from around the neighbourhood and they set about rehearsing the songs that Cosmo has written in his bedroom.

Anybody who has ever played in a teenage pop band is going to relate to this, but then again, so are a lot of people, because this is heart-warming stuff about youth and ambition that pretty much anybody can enjoy. What Carney does better than just about anyone else is to follow the creation of a song through from those first amateurish noodlings, to the finished product, making it all seem wholly credible and entirely uplifting. Even Cosmo’s imagined Back To The Future fantasy works an absolute treat.

There’s a fabulous running joke, which has Cosmo and his band listening to the latest pop sensation, only to end up dressing exactly like them in the following scene, while the original songs written by Carney, Gary Clark and Adam Levine are catchy, but simple enough to make you believe that they actually could have been written by a teenager. There’s also a wonderful relationship between Cosmo and his older brother, University dropout Brendan (Jack Reynor) which goes to the very heart of the story.

Whatever you do, find time to go and see this charming film – it’s an absolute corker.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Home’s First Birthday

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20th-22nd June 2016

Hard to believe, but Home – Manchester’s hub for all things creative, has already been here for one year and recently celebrated it’s millionth customer. So this weekend, they’re having a bit of a party, with all kinds of free events, live music and (I shouldn’t be at all surprised) a lot of people in the bar.

But what theatrical events have they lined up, you might ask. And I’m glad you did, because surely only Home would offer the offbeat double bill that’s currently showing in theatre 2.

The evening kicks off with Late Night Love by Eggs Collective, a weird sort of cabaret that focuses on late-night radio romance. Three black suited actors slink around the theatre offering free chocolates, glasses of prosecco, a bit of ice sculpture and a collection of mawkish power ballads. It’s weird, engaging and a lot of fun. If you want to get involved, make sure you grab a seat at one of the tables up front.

4 stars.

After a short interval, head back into the theatre for Gutted – a one woman show in which Liz Richardson performs a piece about ulcerative colitis. (And before you react by saying, ‘that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,’ don’t be fooled. Richardson (who cowrote the work with Tara Robinson) offers a fearless performance, where all aspects of the condition are unflinchingly explored and where she takes on something like fifteen roles. There’s also a lot of audience participation here but there are rewards – I myself was given a bottle of ale just for reading out a greetings card! This is a moving autobiographical performance, don’t miss it.

4.2 stars.

Even if you can’t get a seat in the theatre, the thing is to be here. Home’s  first floor restaurant is well-worth a visit too. In fact, we can’t really believe we’ve waited a whole year to try it out. The dining room is sprawling and open-plan, merging seamlessly with a   bar and a performance area where a band strikes up part way through our meal. It’s a lively, convivial place, ideal for meeting up with friends. So that’s what we do. The table is ours for the evening, and we never feel rushed and the service is very good, particularly considering how busy the place is. There’s a range of pizzas and burgers, and a few house specialities; if the food is comforting rather than exciting, it doesn’t really matter very much. Portions are generous, and we’re all happy with what we have, particularly the starters, where highlights include the baked king prawns (firm, tasty and plentiful) and the smoked haddock pate (complete with a layer of clarified butter, a pleasing touch, we think). And as tonight’s a party, we imbibe more than a few drinks to mark the occasion.

3.9 stars.

So head into Manchester and bring along some like-minded pals. Home is a brilliant venue and deserves to be celebrated. Maybe we’ll see you there.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Captain America: Civil War

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19/05/16

I’ve been going through a severe bout of spandex withdrawal recently, so I approached this film with extreme caution, despite having heard several favourable reports. The Marvel universe is becoming an out-of-control behemoth, which seems obliged to draw in more and more comic book characters as it trundles along, until there are so many costumed characters onscreen, it starts to overpower the story lines.

Having said that, Captain America: Civil War starts promisingly, roping in some surprisingly serious ideas that for once, do not seem aimed purely at its teenage fan boy audience. In Nigeria, to thwart an attempt by some bad guys to steal a dangerous chemical agent, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and three of the other Avengers get a little carried away with the general kick-assery and in a scene that put me in mind of Team America: World Police, a whole bunch of innocent civilians are killed in the crossfire.

The United Nations decides to issue an edict that the Avengers are not to act off their own bat any more but only if and when granted permission to go into action. Half of the team, headed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) think this is a reasonable idea and elect to sign the necessary forms – but the other half, headed by Captain America, refuse to commit to it. And then, Bucky Barnes /The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is roused from his slumbers to undertake a mission on behalf of his Soviet puppet masters and the Captain finds himself torn between helping his old friend or hunting him down…

Up to this point, it’s all nicely done, but then, inevitably, the opposing sides in the United Nations squabble square up for a battle, enlisting extra help from other Marvel characters and the story buckles under the weight of servicing the antics of so many costumed characters – Ant Man, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Black Widow, War Machine, Vision… even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is brought back into the proceedings as an eager-to-please teenage recruit (a single fun idea in the midst of the mayhem, though it’s nowhere near enough to rescue the film from what’s coming.) The resulting airport-based punch-up seems to go on for ever in that cartoonish 12A way that Marvel have perfected over the years and any hope of coherence goes straight out of the nearest window. Of course its all skilfully done, but it’s somehow distressing to witness so much expertise (and dare I mention, so many millions of dollars) wasted on what amounts to a souped-up brawl.

I appreciate that I’m not in the target audience for films like this, but honestly, Marvel need to understand that less is more. This feels like a great big, bloated exercise in extreme tedium. An accompanying trailer for X-Men Apocalypse appeared to offer another indigestible helping of the same sort of pudding.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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18/05/16

War and comedy can make uncomfortable bedfellows; it’s not very often that filmmakers get the mix right, but that’s hardly surprising when your potential laughs are inevitably punctuated by regular doses of death and devastation. Whiskey  Tango Foxtrot is co-written by former news reporter Kim Baker, based on her book The Taliban Shuffle and essentially, it’s used here as a vehicle for the comedy talents of Tina Fey. Though she has a likeable persona, this is a somewhat hit and miss affair, mostly falling short of real humour and failing to imbue the proceedings with any hint of real peril.

When we first meet Kim, she’s forging a safe but humdrum career as a copy editor at a TV news station in New York. The escalating tensions in Afghanistan, however, create opportunities for ‘the unmarried and childless’ to head out to the war zone and ‘raise their profiles.’ Despite being in a long term relationship, Baker accepts the offer and the next thing she knows, she’s based in Kabul (or as the news teams refer to it, the Ka-bubble) trying to make waves as a news presenter. Her main competition comes from the reckless and highly photogenic Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) the only other woman reporter on the scene and someone who has flung herself headlong into the hedonistic lifestyle that reporters follow when they’re not out shooting footage.

Baker’s long-distance relationship soon goes belly-up, but she finds some consolation in the arms of veteran Scottish photographer, Iain McKelpie (Martin Freeman) and meanwhile she’s also come to the attention of Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina), a powerful local politician with an eye for Western females. For the first year or so,  Kim does fine, but by the third year audiences back home are tiring of news from the war zone. Only the most dangerous and hair-rising assignments are going to keep her on the screens back in America… but how far is she prepared to go to ensure that happens?

It’s not a terrible film, but neither is it powerful enough or focused enough to hold the attention for very long. More damningly, I don’t feel I really learned anything new about Afghanistan, because everything on the screen was shown from the perspective of a privileged white American, and somehow that didn’t feel like enough. One of these days, Fey is going to find a role that’s worthy of her undoubted talents but this doesn’t really feel like the one to do it for her. This isn’t so much M.A.S.H, as lukewarm spuds.

Maybe the acrostic in the title – WTF – should have acted as a warning.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney