Month: May 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

ourkindoftraitor-mcgregor-gunpoint

17/05/16

The recent success of the BBC’s The Night Manager has put the work of John Le Carré back into the public eye, but Our Kind of Traitor (terrible title) isn’t likely to enjoy the same levels of success, despite the presence of Ewan McGregor in the lead role.It’s not an awful film, by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a plodding, workmanlike feel to Susanna White’s direction which prevents it from ever really taking flight. And then there’s the plot… oh dear.

McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a university lecturer, who we first meet on holiday in Morrocco with his barrister partner, Gail Perkins (Naomi Harris). Mind you, they’re not having a lot of fun as they’ve gone there to try and get over Perry’s recent fling with one of his students. One night, on his own in the hotel bar, Perry encounters Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) and recklessly accepts an invitation to go clubbing with him and his pals. Dima, it turns out, is a high-ranking member of the Russian mafia, a money launderer, who is about to sign over millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains to a fellow gangster, ‘The Prince’, who is planning to open a bank in the UK. (Well, he’s a mafioso, he’s surely allowed some hobbies?) Dima is painfully aware that the last person who signed over money to this charmer ended up dead, along with all his family – so he enlists Perry to take a flash drive back to London for him and asks him to it over to MI6. Perry being the thoughtful sort, doesn’t even bother mentioning any of this to Gail. (No wonder their relationship is in trouble!) The first she knows about it is when they’re detained at passport control.

Perry promptly comes to the attention of Hector (Damien Lewis) a spy who (like most Le Carré characters) has his own personal agenda and wants to get even with other MI6 operatives who have done him down in the past. He’s keen to enlist Dima’s help to expose those MPs who have been dealing with the Russians on the quiet – but there’s a problem. His employers are reluctant to sanction such a move and will only allow him three agents.  Almost before you can say ‘that seems highly unlikely’, Hector has recruited Perry and Gail to help his team bring Dima and his family safely to the UK. Whereupon all kinds of adventures ensue in a variety of eye-catching locations…

Whether or not you can accept such a risible idea will greatly influence your ability to enjoy this film. I’m afraid I simply couldn’t. The ensuing chase does manage to kindle the occasional bit of tension, but the ultimate overview – that everyone is basically corrupt and nobody can be trusted, soon becomes a little wearing; furthermore, the notion that MI6 can’t afford to enlist enough operatives to handle such a mission successfully is faintly ridiculous. McGregor gives it a go but looks uncertain of himself all the way through, Harris doesn’t really have much to do except stand around looking worried and even the usually dependable Skarsgard has to shout and bluster his way through the proceedings, in order to generate some momentum.

Oh yes, and like most Le Carré stories, there’s a rather downbeat ending, that does nobody any favours. There will doubtless be plenty of people queuing up to tell me I’m wrong, but if this film has a flavour, to me it’s basic vanilla.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Florence Foster Jenkins

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16/05/16

The last time we saw the chameleon that is Meryl Streep in a musical role it was in Rikki and the Flash, where she managed to utterly convince as an ageing rocker with a troublesome daughter. The titular Florence Foster Jenkins is something else entirely. Streep plays a genuine historical character who lived only for music and who enacted a whole series of infamous concerts during the 1940s.

She was remarkable for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, she’d been a musical prodigy but an unwelcome dose of syphilis, passed on to her by her first husband when she was eighteen, had left her incapable of playing the piano. Her only other option was to sing and luckily for her, she had inherited her father’s fortune and was able to fund a series of private concerts. The reviews were generally favourable, largely because of the sterling efforts of her second husband, former actor St Clare Bayfield (played here with great charm by Hugh Grant) who smoothed his wife’s path by bribing reviewers and ensuring that she never ever witnessed people laughing at her – something they were likely to do, because of course, she couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.

The film opens with her auditioning for an accompanist and she soon settles on Cosme McMoon (a beautifully understated turn by Simon Helberg) who finds himself conflicted by his desire to play good music and his understandable horror at the noises he hears coming from the mouth of Ms Jenkins. The situation is manageable when the concerts are kept small and intimate but when on a whim, Jenkins books herself a performance at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of 3000, it’s clear that Bayfield and McMoon are going to have a more difficult job on their hands. And to compound matters, she’s only gone and made a blooming record!

This is a slight but perfectly judged film, skilfully directed by Stephen Frears and built around a wonderful comic performance from Streep. If you think there’s not much humour to be milked from such a tragic premise, don’t be fooled – you’ll laugh your way through much of this and towards the end, you’ll almost certainly be close to tears. The script, by Nicholas Martin, is adept at confounding your expectations. Bayfield, who at first appears to be an unspeakable cad (he led a double life, living with a young woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)) clearly did love his wife and lavished great care and attention on her at every turn, unlike musical virtuosos such as Arturo Toscanini and Carlo Edwards, who happily took a series of cheques from her but never once turned up to show their support.

In an age where the likes of The X Factor and BGT have elevated the championing of musical mediocrity to an art form, Jenkins’ story seems a particularly prescient one – and for Streep’s performance alone, this is worth seeking out.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Green Room

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13/05/16

Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film, the low budget revenge drama Blue Ruin, ticked enough boxes to make him a director to watch. Green Room is a rock-horror vehicle that cranks everything up to eleven, and features the kind of visceral carnage that’s not for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached.

Third division rock band the This Ain’t Rights are gigging their way around the Pacific North West of America, getting from place to place by siphoning petrol from other vehicles and playing the kind of dives that bring them around six dollars a piece. After a particularly bad night, an embarrassed promoter fixes them up with a gig at his cousin’s place and warns them that the audience will be ‘an unusual crowd’ – by which he means that they are a bunch of shave-headed, Neo Nazi supremacists led by Darcy (Patrick Stewart in an uncharacteristically nasty role, featuring an occasionally wonky American accent).

After an unpromising start, (the band kick off the gig with the Dead Kennedy’s classic – the one that dismisses Nazis in an fairly uncompromising manner) but after that, the band go down quite well and they are just congratulating themselves on being paid a decent fee for a change when they discover the body of a young woman with a knife. Unfortunately for her, it’s stuck in the side of her head. What’s more, the management seem very reluctant to let the band leave and before they know it, they find themselves holed up in the titular green room, wondering if they are going to escape with their lives.

In tone, the film is closer to some of the body shock films of the 70s – as individuals are hacked, bludgeoned and shotgunned to death, the tension begins to wrack up to almost unbearable levels. Anton Yelchin as bassist Pat is the nearest we get to a lead role here and Imogen Poots puts in a decent turn as Amber, a girl who is unlucky enough to have both the haircut from hell, and the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Saulnier’s muse, Macon Blair, has a small but interesting role as Darcy’s right hand man.

Everything builds to a ferocious crescendo, and it’s clear fairly early into the proceedings that  this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of haemoglobin. As a former band member myself, it recalled some of the worst gigs I ever played at, but thankfully, things never got quite as bad as they do here.

Watch this only if you can tolerate scenes of excessive violence. Things get very bloody.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Twelfth Night

Dan Poole (Toby Belch) and Amy Marchant (Viola) in Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night - photo Mark GarvinFerdy Roberts (Malvolio) in Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night - photo by Robert Day

11/05/16

Home, Manchester

If you’re planning to do Shakespeare, you pretty much have two choices: you can play it straight, like the admirable King Lear currently coming to the end of its run at the Royal Exchange, Manchester – or you can ‘do something completely different with it.’ Filter’s production of Twelfth Night certainly fits into the latter category. I mean, when else have you seen a production of the play that includes an audience-participatory game of Butt Head half way through… a production where a lively conga line of dancing audience members is interrupted by the delivery of hot pizza? This is Shakespeare taken to the very edge, reshaped, remodelled and radically stripped back. Mostly it works well.

As you take your seats it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the usual relaxed evening at the theatre. The stage is pretty much filled by musicians and as the play begins, the house lights are left on, the better to involve the audience. Orsino (Harry Jardine) strolls on and puts the band through its musical paces, before launching into ‘If music be the food of love,’ and then we’re off at a sprint, because this is ninety minutes of energetic action with barely a pause for breath. (It helps if you have at least a working knowledge of the original play, because there’s not much here in the way of set-up.) Much of the text is delivered in the form of punky songs, actors conflate characters (Jardine plays both Orsino and Aguecheek) and some of the sub plots are simply thrown out with the bathwater.

Mind you, it’s not all gimmicks. Dan Poole gives a roistering interpretation of Sir Toby Belch, as a hapless drunkard clutching a carrier bag full of lager cans and Ferdy Roberts is a splendid Malvolio, whose transformation from a stiff-backed martinet into a yellow-stocking clad degenerate is one of the evening’s highlights. I loved the fact that Viola (Amy Marchant) borrowed her male disguise from a bloke in the audience and her interplay with a radio weather forecaster was great fun.

As you might expect with something as freeform as this, not everything in the performance is perfect. The regular recourse to the use of a tiny speaker to distort some of the actors voices occasionally makes it hard to understand what’s actually being said and one of the extended comic routines between Belch and Aguecheek goes on rather too long for comfort, even though it comes good in the end. While I don’t fully agree with Philomena Cunk’s assertion – ‘If you go to watch a Shakespeare comedy today, you’ll hear the audience laughing as though there are jokes in there, even though there definitely aren’t.’ – I understand exactly what she’s driving at. Happily, this isn’t the case here. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I laughed quite so much at the Bard of Stratford (apart from a Macbeth I saw back in the day where the titular hero accidentally chinned himself with the handle of his broadsword).

My only regret? I should have gone on stage for one of those free shots of tequila. Now that’s something you don’t usually get to say in these circumstances! Twelfth Night is on at Home, Manchester until the 14th May, then moves on to the Theatre Royal Plymouth from the 16th to the 21st May.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Stowaway

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Home, Manchester

06/05/16

Hidden in the wheel arch of a plane from Dubai, a stowaway falls to his death in the car park of a DIY superstore. The fall is witnessed by Andy (Steven Rae), an event that makes his own recently disrupted life begin to unravel – and when a passenger on the plane, Lisa (Hannah Donaldson), a crime writer returning from a prestigious literary festival, reads about the incident, she feels compelled to try and find out about the dead man – who was he and what brought him to such a horrible end? But even when she returns to Dubai to investigate, she finds that nobody wants to give her any answers.

The four actors that comprise Analogue Theatre’s production present a whole series of intertwined stories which serve to flesh out the tale, but also demonstrate how close proximity to a tragedy intensifies the situation. In a series of cleverly constructed flashbacks we find out more about the dead man, seeing him as a child in India with his sister and how his attempts to better his own life lead him into the construction industry in Dubai, working on glittering high rises for the super-rich, whilst being paid slave wages and made to work around the clock. Eventually his only hope of a better future is to try and escape from the awful  world into which he has unwittingly blundered.

This is a sharp and sinewy story, one that delivers more questions that it offers answers for. It’s a prescient tale and one that I would highly recommend. An after-show discussion with two of the actors and some lecturers from Manchester University also benefited from a guest spot by Gulwali Passarlay whose book The Lightless Sky is based around his own experiences as a 12 year old refugee fleeing from from Afghanistan.

Stowaway concludes tonight (7th May) at Home, Manchester, before moving on for a single performance at The Civic, Barnsely on the 12th. If you’re able to catch a performance, please do: you’ll be moved, informed and riveted by what you see onstage.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Jungle Book

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02/05/16

It’s a brave man who takes on a classic like The Jungle Book (John Favreau, in case you were wondering) and emerges from the experience without a generous portion of egg spread across his face. There are already two knockout screen adaptations. As a youngster, I remember being thrilled by the Alexander Korda-produced version, starring Sabu – and who doesn’t love Disney’s 1967 animation, the last film that Walt actually had a personal hand in making? So I admit, I expected this to be at best, so-so. But those expectations were kicked out of the ball park within moments of the film actually starting. Make no mistake, this is a magical production in the purest sense of the word. That creaking sound you’ll hear in the cinema? The sound of an audience’s jaws collectively dropping.

I’m not going into the plot, since it’s so well-known, but suffice to say that Favreau and his team have created a stunning CGI word where everything, from the biggest mammal to the tiniest insect is rendered in absolutely believable detail. The time was (not so very long ago) when you looked at a CGI tiger and thought, ‘hmm, not bad but you can tell it’s not the real thing.’ In The Jungle Book, however, the only element that tells you that Shere Kahn isn’t the real McCoy is that a real tiger wouldn’t tend to talk like Idris Elba. (Elba, by the way, manages to invest his animal character with absolute menace.)

As the only human actor onscreen, twelve year old newcomer Neel Sethi looks like Disney’s animated Mowgli come to life – (i.e. adorable) and though the likes of Bill Murray (Baloo) Scarlett Johansson (Kaa) and Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) merely provide voiceovers for their animal counterparts, somehow, their human characteristics shine through. It’s an extraordinary achievement and one can only wonder how Sethi managed to accomplish his role against nothing more inspirational than a blue screen.

Some caveats? Well, I do have a couple. After a while, you notice that the animals are rendered much bigger (150% bigger) than they actually are in real life. OK, we’re told that King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, but in this world, even a baby elephant towers over Mowgli. Favreau maintains that this was a deliberate move to show the animals ‘as they would appear to Mowgli’ but I can’t help wondering if it was really necessary. Also, he decided to incorporate a couple of the better known songs from the animation – this is a Disney studio picture, after all, so perhaps he felt obliged to honour the film’s progenitor. Mowgli and Baloo’s affectionate rendering of The Bear Necessities is fine, but the scene where King Louie (Christopher Walken) sings I Wanna Be Like You-Hoo-Hoo to Mowgli feels like the film’s one misstep and frankly it’s good enough to have skipped that detail (especially as we get a reprise of the song over the end credits).

But these are minor niggles. The mere fact that a packed audience of youngsters sat in absolute silence throughout the screening will give you some indication of just how appealing this film is. They absolutely loved it… and here was one sixty four year old who was in total agreement with them.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Heatons Comedy Evening

 

 

Heatons Sports Club, Heaton Moor

01/05/16

The Heatons Sports Club seems an unlikely comedy venue and, indeed, the ad hoc nature of the performance space appears to confirm this: there’s no stage, but there is a badly-erected backdrop with dangerously protruding legs (a trip-hazard if ever I saw one), and  a couple of lights rigged a little too low, so that they glare right into the comics’ eyes. Still, it works: the gig is a sell-out, there’s a pleasant, convivial atmosphere, and the bar is tantalisingly cheap.

This is a regular event. The first Sunday of every month sees local sleb Justin Moorhouse as the resident compere, introducing a decent range of comedians. No wonder it’s sold out; it’s rare to find such quality in a suburban venue. Hats off to the organisers for sorting this one out.

Tonight’s gig starts well.  Justin Moorhouse is a relaxed MC; he’s in command, effortlessly managing some potentially awkward heckling, remaining good-humoured and engaging throughout his introductory set. He’s funny and silly, and sets the tone for the other acts.

The opener is Will Franken, an American comic who does some decent impressions and raises a few laughs, most notably with his generic ‘person/brand name’ advertisement, which is really very good. He misses the mark a bit with some of his jokes though, straying into territory where he appears to be affirming some of the ‘-isms’ he purports to mock. Still, the crowd seems to like him – and he proves me right about the backdrop, stumbling as he catches his foot on one of those protruding legs…

Clayton Jones is a charming, self-deprecating middle, who takes an easy, conversational tone. His set focuses mainly on his experiences growing up mixed-race in London, before moving to the North West (where he never experiences racism, he says – people are too busy hating him for being a Southerner).

Tonight’s headliner is Dave Johns, a seasoned comic, whom we’ve seen a few times before. His is an assured set, delivering laugh after laugh on topics as diverse as his divorce, a Travelodge and the theme from Goldfinger. He also demonstrates that jokes about Isis can be topical, funny and yet inoffensive, with a clever gag about his little girl. Ok, so he does come across as slightly sleazy at one point, attempting to seduce a young woman in the front row with the promise of a Toffee Crisp, but it’s all done with a smile and a wink, and no one could really take offence. He’s due to take the lead in Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, so we’re sure to be hearing more from this comedian before long.

All in all, the Heatons Comedy Evening is a real success, and we’ll definitely be returning. Book now for the next one on June 5th.

4 stars

Susan Singfield