Month: May 2017

The Red Turtle

29/05/17

I have to confess to having a bit of a blind spot for animation.  I sometimes have to cajole myself into going along to see one, even though I invariably enjoy myself when I make the effort. I loved Inside Out, for instance – heck, I really liked Frozen, before it became so… over-exposed.

The Red Turtle is more than just another cartoon – it’s a game changer, quite unlike any animated film I’ve seen before. This canny co-production between Japan’s Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit seems to exemplify the best traditions of east and west. The Japanese influences are there in the sumptuous forests and the watercolour-like depictions of the landscape – yet the graphic characters could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Herge cartoon. Almost completely wordless but blessed with a sumptuous soundtrack to make up for it, this is fabulous stuff – a powerful and affecting meditation on life, love and adversity.

A man finds himself a castaway on a remote desert island. He spends a lot of time looking for signs of life and when he fails to find another human there, he starts building rafts in an attempt to escape – but his encounters with a mysterious red turtle ensure that he repeatedly ends up right back where he started. As the story unfolds, the man begins to realise that the turtle isn’t what he first thought it was…

It would be criminal to give away more of the plot. Suffice to say that this beautiful allegory, which clocks in at a pacy 80 minutes, will thrill you, amaze you and, unless you’re the most stoic person on the planet, have you in tears at its heartfelt conclusion. For this is a parable about life and there will be elements here that every viewer will identify with. Just in case I’m making this sound a bit too po-faced, let me tell you that there are a family of crabs living on the island, whose playful antics deliver regular doses of comic relief.

The Red Turtle may well be the perfect antidote for people who don’t much care for animation. But those who love the format will have a field day too, because this is an absolute delight that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Chez Mal Brasserie at Malmaison

28/05/17

Leith, Edinburgh

We’re here because some of bookatable.co.uk’s deals are just too good to ignore, and this one – three courses and a glass of Prosecco at the Chez Mal Brasserie for a mere £19.95 – seems like particularly good value for money. It’s in Leith too, which is an added draw: it’s a rare part of our adopted hometown that we’ve yet to explore. So we plot a route on google maps, lace up our walking boots, and set off through the city and along the Waters of Leith. Eight kilometres and ninety minutes later, we arrive at Malmaison, feeling more than ready for this little treat.

Its location is wonderful: a cobbled street on the waterfront. The building dates back to 1883, and its maritime history is echoed in the quirky artwork that decorates the bare stone walls. Service is friendly, and our Proseccos arrive quickly. The Spring fixed-price menu offers four options per course, all of which sound interesting (and, even without the bookatable deal, it’s still only £24.95). We order promptly – being hungry makes us decisive – and select a bottle of French languedoc to accompany our meals. The wine is soon delivered, and is sliding down very nicely… but something seems to have gone awry. Where is our food?

Just as we’re getting to the neck-craning stage (did the people at the next table come in after us? They seem to be on their second courses already), a waiter appears with some complementary bread and apologises for the delay, citing a mix-up in the kitchen. We’re glad of the bread, which is absolutely delicious, and served with both a rich salty butter and an olive oil/balsamic combo. But we do devour it a little too enthusiastically (did I mention that we’re hungry?), perhaps spoiling our appetites for what’s to come.

The starters appear soon afterwards, and they’re good. Philip’s grilled masala spiced mackerel with sweet potato and lime pickle and a cumin raita is especially tasty: the robust fish perfectly enhanced by the sharply pickled veg. My spring lamb Benedict is also nicely done, but there’s a reason it’s usually made with ham, and that’s the saltiness. The lamb and egg together, especially atop the brioche toast, are perhaps a little too rich, with nothing to cut through it all.

Philip’s main is a chicken Milanese, which is a breaded chicken breast with a Burford brown fried egg, truffle mayonnaise and rainbow chard. It’s indisputably well-cooked, and there’s not much here to criticise, but neither is there much to laud. It’s, well, okay. Quite nice. Y’know. My pan-fried river trout is a bit better: the fish is beautifully cooked with a crispy skin, and the pea and broad bean purée accompanying it is lovely. But it still feels like it could do with… I don’t know what, just to elevate it into something better, something more.

The puddings are delicious though; hats off to the pastry chef. We share two. The first is a warm Valrhona caramel chocolate brownie, a rich, sumptuous temptation, which is served with the most more-ish ice cream I’ve ever tasted, a brown butter pecan concoction. Yum. Second is a rhubarb trifle, the creamy vanilla custard and rhubarb jelly offset perfectly by sharp, almost sour pieces of the eponymous fruit, and a spicy ginger crumble. These make for a very satisfactory end to our evening, and we wander off into the Leith evening, ready to walk off our excess.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Glory On Earth

23/05/17

Glory on Earth, written by Linda McLean and directed by David Greig, is a refreshingly unusual piece of historical theatre. It’s the story of Mary Queen of Scots (Rona Morison) and the four meetings she held with protestant reformer, John Knox (Jamie Sives), whilst she was in virtual captivity in Holyrood Palace. To Knox, Mary was an abomination – a staunch Catholic with a genuine claim to the throne of Scotland, a country that had so recently been swept ‘pure’ by the Calvinist reformation.

Karen Tenant’s stage design eschews any conventional attempt at historical accuracy. Mary and her six female attendants (who, frustratingly for any would-be reviewer, are all called ‘Mary’ and each take on several other roles throughout the play) are dressed stylistically, in a mixture of old and new – lace ruffs and painted boots. The sets feature key elements that simply hint at architectural detail – stone arches drift silently down from above; a wooden pulpit resembling a scaffold trundles in from the wings. Moreover, the sound design utilises a mash-up of contemporary music from The Jesus & Mary Chain to the torch songs of Edith Piaf (the latter alluding to Mary’s previous role as Queen Consort of France). To add to the mix, the actors also sing some enchanting reformation psalms and occasionally even play musical instruments.

If I’m making this sound like a bit of a hodge-podge, I certainly don’t mean to. The central tenet of the tale – the clash between two styles of religion – is eloquently told. Jamie Sives’s Knox is a dour and intimidating presence, his grim expression guaranteed to take the fizz off anybody’s pint in an instant, while Morison’s Mary displays all the impatience and affectation of an eighteen year old woman caught in an impossible situation, desperately seeking a husband and trying in vain to kindle some kind of a friendship with her father’s cousin, Elizabeth. Of course, we all know where Mary’s journey ends and, as she progresses steadily towards her inevitable doom, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for her plight.

A deceptively powerful piece, this, and one that delights in pointing out that, centuries after these events, there still exists the same constant wrangling between Catholic Europe and Protestant Britain. Those with an interest in the history of Scotland will definitely want to catch this, but there’s something here that will resonate with a wider audience than that. This is a tale about humanity, about belief, and about the impact we have on others. And it doesn’t get much more universal than that.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Colossal

22/05/17

To say that Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is unusual would be something of an understatement; as an indie slacker-flick about a kooky American woman and, um, a rampaging monster in South Korea, it is a genre-defying delight, and certainly the most original film I’ve seen in a long while.

Anne Hathaway stars as kooky woman, Gloria, whose life is spiralling out of control. She’s lost her job and she’s drinking too much, and her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), is getting sick of her. Hathaway aces the role; she’s convincingly shambolic without being a complete wastrel. It’s easy to relate to Gloria.

When self-righteous Tim decides – self-righteously – that enough is enough, he kicks Gloria out of their New York apartment, and she returns to her childhood home. The house is empty, pending rental: her parents have moved away. And so she is alone, taking stock, and revisiting her past.

When she bumps into her old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), things start to look up. He offers her a job in his bar, and they hang out together after hours, drinking and catching up. Okay, so it’s a drifting, going-nowhere lifestyle choice, but it’s not so bad. They like each other. They’re having fun.

But Gloria’s chilled-out demeanour masks a growing anger deep inside. Old memories are resurfacing, and the booze can only blot them out for so long. When she sees news footage of a strange monster attacking Seoul, she’s appalled. And even more so when she realises that the monster is a part of her, unleashed upon the unwitting citizens of a city far away. She has to learn to control – rather than suppress – her rage, if she wants to stop its destructive manifestation.

I know, it sounds bonkers. And it is. It’s also bleakly funny and startlingly profound. Sudeikis’s performance as Oscar is beautifully nuanced, his sly abusive disposition gradually revealed. He’s the real monster: an angry, bitter robot of a man, used to controlling those around him. Gloria can only beat him by cutting him down to size – and there’s only one way she can do that. The monster is her twin, her Hyde, her Frankenstein. She has to own it, subvert it to her will.

Oh, look, I could go on for ages here. I found this whole film fascinating. A real gem. Go on, watch it.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

20/05/17

Oh dear. The relatively low key advance publicity for this has already led me to suspect that all might not be well in the King Arthur camp, and now there’s word that it has under-performed badly in the USA, making it Warner Brothers’ most expensive flop in a long time. While it’s very easy to be wise after the event, it’s pretty clear from a single viewing that the film’s major problem is the director’s inability to stick within a chosen genre.

It opens in full Lord of the Rings mode as the evil sorcerer, Mordred (Rob Knighton), launches an all-out attack on Camelot, complete with thousands of troops and several giant battle elephants. It’s clear at a glance where most of the film’s massive budget has been spent. Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) uses his magical sword Excalibur to defeat Mordred, but he is unaware that his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law), is in league with the forces of darkness (those constant nosebleeds should have been a dead giveaway). Vortigern kills Uther and his wife, but their infant son Arthur, escapes in a boat and drifts downstream to Londinium, where he is adopted by a prostitute and grows up in a brothel. Next, we are treated to one of those montage sequences that director Guy Ritchie is so fond of, depicting the little boy’s eventful passage to manhood, which naturally involves plenty of bare knuckle fighting; some martial arts training, courtesy of resident king fu expert, George (Tom Wu); and a fondness for making money. Pretty soon the boy has grown up to be Charlie Hunnam and we’re in a different kind of movie altogether.

Now it’s Lock Stock and One Flaming Broadsword as Arthur interacts with his crew, all of whom talk like they’re in a contemporary cockney gangster movie and most of whom rejoice under comedy names – Wet Stick, Back Lack and Mischief John to name but three. At this point, Arthur is a bit of a Dark Ages Arthur Daly, wheeling and dealing with the Viking oppressors and steering well clear of ‘The Blacklegs,’ who are Vortigern’s men. But of course, it’s only a matter of time before Excalibur rears its handsome hilt, when it is discovered protruding from a block of stone. If Vortigern had any sense, he’d have hidden it but instead, desperate to locate his brother’s missing son, he insists that every man in the kingdom must attempt to wield the sword, a ceremony which is presided over by a Blackleg called Trigger (David Beckham, in a mercifully brief cameo). The rest is, of course, legend…

But Ritchie seems incapable of keeping the good ship Excalibur on a steady course. One moment Arthur and his posse are being diamond geezers, the next Vortigern is communing with some slimy creatures from the bottom of an underground pond, and then Arthur is having visions under the influence of ‘The Mage’ (Astrid Berges Frisbey, nabbing what amounts to pretty much the only half-decent role for a woman in the entire film). A scene where Arthur and his gang are planning to sneak into Camelot could have stepped straight out of a contemporary heist movie, and yet, for the finale, we’re back to epic fantasy again as Vortigern takes on the guise of a giant warrior, looking to eliminate his only challenger for the throne of England.

To be fair, the film has a few memorable scenes – there’s a lovely sequence featuring the Lady of the Lake and there’s no doubting the majesty of that opening battle. But overall, this is too scattershot to be convincing. As for Hunnam (last seen as Sir Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z), well, he makes a decent fist of his starring role, but sadly he’s battling more than just his onscreen adversaries in this one.

Ritchie has pitched Legend of the Sword as the first of a four-part series, but judging by this opening salvo, I’m hoping (to paraphrase a line from Love and Death) that he hasn’t already put a down payment on the battlefield.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18/05/17

Edward Albee’s 1962 play was famously adapted as a movie in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The role of Martha is widely considered Taylor’s best onscreen performance, so it’s a tough act to follow – and perhaps, on paper, Imelda Staunton is an unlikely candidate for the role. But never underestimate her. She is an absolute revelation in this National Theatre production, beamed out live to cinemas across the UK. These screenings are a wonderful (and more affordable) way for people outside London to gain access to the very best of theatre.

George (Conleth Hill, best known for Game of Thrones) is an associate Professor of History at an American University, a man who feels that he hasn’t really achieved his life’s ambitions. This belief is constantly reinforced by his hard-drinking wife, Martha (Staunton), who seems to delight in reminding him of his failures at every given opportunity. The events of this three hour play unfold over one night, after a party at the faculty. George and Martha are already well-oiled when they arrive home and George is dismayed to discover that Martha has invited a young couple back ‘for drinks.’ They are a young biology professor, Nick (a barely recognisable Luke Treadaway) and his ditzy wife, Honey (Imogen Poots). Given the gladiatorial nature of the host couple’s conversation before the guests arrive, it’s clear that we are in for a bumpy ride… and as the drinks flow and inhibitions are increasingly broken down, the deepest secrets of everyone present are pulled out and ripped to shreds.

This is an incendiary, vitriolic drama, often wickedly funny but ultimately heart-breaking. Staunton’s extraordinary performance is perfectly matched by Hill’s dry, acerbic turn as George; indeed many of the play’s funniest moments are his, most tellingly the scene where he immerses himself in a favourite history book, while Martha and Nick cavort unabashedly just behind him. The other two actors may have somewhat less to do, but they make the most of what they’ve been given.

It’s a while since I’ve seen this performed and I was astonished at the similarities between this and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which came along more than a decade later. In both plays, an ambitious male character is pushed to the very age by an unforgiving wife. In both plays, we laugh at the resulting humiliation, only to have that laughter snatched away by the misery of the conclusion.

This was a one night only screening, so if you really want to see this show, you’ll need to head down to ‘that London’ where it’s currently showing  at the Harold Pinter theatre.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jane Eyre

15/05/17

When it comes to adapting a work of classic fiction, there are basically two ways you can go. You can opt to be as faithful to the original as possible, depicting it scene by scene, or you can bend the rules somewhat and come at it from an entirely different direction. In the case of The National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, they haven’t so much bent the rules as torn up the book and started over – and yet, I’ve rarely seen the spirit of a story captured quite as convincingly as this.

Susan has already seen the play – during a brief visit to London – and she came back raving about it (https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/10/04/jane-eyre/), so I was delighted when I heard that it was going out on tour. Now I can absolutely understand what she was so enthused about. This is a powerful production that eschews the straightforward plod of earlier adaptations in favour of a nimble, expressionistic approach, where the performers hurtle back and forth across the stylised set, climbing ladders, descending staircases and barely pausing to draw breath. They manage to pull the audience in and carry them along for the ride.

It’s probably pointless to recount the particulars of such a famous story. Suffice to say that Jane (Nadia Clifford)’s birth, abandonment and adoption are dealt with visually in a matter of minutes. Her subsequent coach journey is depicted in a simple but totally convincing manner and, despite the fact that the actors switch effortlessly from character to character throughout the play (Paul Mundall even portrays Rochester’s dog, Pilot!), we are never at a loss as to who is who at any given moment – even when Jane’s thoughts manifest themselves in human form, asking her difficult questions at pivotal moments in the proceedings.

While this is not exactly a musical, it is a play with music, and it is integral to the show. The musicians are onstage at all time and Bertha (Melanie Marshall), a formidable presence in a bright red dress, delivers a series of haunting songs, including the most original version of Gnarls Barclay’s Crazy that I’ve ever heard. Clifford succeeds in conveying Jane’s fieriness (something that earlier adaptations have missed entirely), and Tim Delap’s Rochester is also impressive, a brusque hulking presence, who literally towers over Clifford’s ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ form as they converse. Anyone worried that the limitations of a stage might rob the story of its climactic scene – the fire – need have no worries on that score. It’s right there and is utterly convincing.

If you can get a ticket for this then I would urge you to do so. It’s one of the most convincing literary adaptations I’ve ever seen, an absolute must-see.

5 stars

Philip Caveney