Month: May 2017

La Cantina

13/05/17

Heaton Moor, Stockport

We are back in our old stamping ground and meeting friends for dinner, so it’s all good. Back in the day, of course, the logical choice would have been Steve Pilling’s Damson, a fine-dining venue that – in our humble opinion – was up there with the very best of them. But sadly, it is no more and, in its place, Steve has established not one but two new venues: Roost, a rotisserie chicken and wood-fired pizza place, and La Cantina, a tapas bar – and it’s the latter that we have chosen to visit tonight.

It’s Saturday around 7pm and the joint is busy. There’s a lively, rustic feel to the place. You cannot book seats here but, luckily, our friends have got here early enough to commandeer a table for four, so we’ve no worries on that score. We are able to enjoy a drink (Estrella Dam on draught!) and some conversation while we peruse the menu, also taking notice of the specials chalked on a board above our heads. Tapas selections cost from £4 to £6 each and we go ahead and order. The service is fast and, considering how busy the place is, really well organised. Okay, so this isn’t going to be in the same league as Damson, but clearly it’s not meant to be. This is somewhere to enjoy a drink and a tasty nibble with friends and, on that score, it succeeds.

The food is uniformly good – a grilled squid dish is particularly delicious: lemony, peppery and just chewy enough, a whole beastie served with crispy tentacles. Yum. All the usual suspects are here – a nicely spicy patatas bravas; boquerones that are fish to the power of fish; a vibrant pork and chorizo stew; a decent paella (which is also available as a takeaway from a van parked just by the entrance). But I should perhaps point out that the portions are, well, tapas-sized. Those who possess a hearty appetite (and I would proudly include myself amidst that splendid horde) may want to ensure that they select several portions apiece if they want to be sure to fully quell the hunger within.

So, come to La Cantina for boozy good times. Damson may be done and dusted but this is the perfect place to catch up with old friends – and, judging by the crowd tonight, it’s already a roaring success – so much so that another la Cantina has just opened in neighbouring Didsbury. It’s almost as though Steve actually knows what he’s doing…

As for Roost, we’ll have to leave that until the next time we’re on ‘the Moor.’

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Alien: Covenant

13/05/17

Prometheus was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent years. After several underwhelming Alien sequels, fans of the series were eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the world that he originated in 1979, but what we actually got was some distance away from that premise – perhaps a few steps too far. So Covenant is very much Scott’s attempts to make amends for that misstep and to some degree, he’s been successful in his ambitions – even if too much of the film riffs on earlier ideas. Oddly, this one feels closer to James Cameron’s brilliant second instalment, Aliens – which Scott still feels was arranged ‘behind his back.’

This film is set ten years after Prometheus and the colony ship Covenant is making its way towards a new planet where the passengers hope to start a whole new world. While the crew are deep in hyper sleep, the day-to-day running of the ship is left to ‘synthetic’ Walter (Michael Fassbender). But an unexpected incident means that the crew are woken seven years too early and, even worse there are a couple of fatalities – including the Captain, the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) isn’t exactly relishing the idea of getting back into those unreliable pods, so when the crew happen upon an inexplicable signal issuing from what appears to be a nearby habitable planet, he feels it’s worth going in to investigate…

Sound familiar? Well, yes, very. Pretty soon an advance party are making a landing on the planet and realising that it really isn’t a safe place to try and make a new home – and Walter meets an earlier model of himself, David, who has been surviving alone on the planet since the events of Prometheus. But can the advance party make it back to their spaceship alive?

Ridley Scott’s films are nearly always good to look at and he manages to crank up enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat through much of this. The planet locations are beautifully set up, Waterstone steps gamely into Ellen Ripley’s boots and there are enough chest-bursters, face-huggers and Xenomorphs to keep the fans happy. There’s also an interesting trope set up between caring, artful David and his cooler, less compassionate successor, Walter. I’m delighted to see that the project has finally gone back to the designs of creature-creator H.R. Giger for its look. But there remains the conviction that we’re simply revisiting territory that has already been well and truly trodden flat. The news that Scott is planning to expand the Alien universe with another three films does not exactly fill me with excitement. He’s done what he should have done last time out. Surely now, he should let this idea rest and move on with his many other projects. After all, at 79, who knows how many more he will achieve?

For my money, Alien: Covenant would make a decent swan song for the franchise. Leave it, Ridley. Step away from the franchise. There’s nothing new to see here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mikado

09/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are undoubtedly very good indeed: we saw and enjoyed HMS Pinafore last year at the Lowry, and tonight’s Mikado is equally assured. The conceit is similar: in Pinafore the men were sailors, performing to entertain themselves, this time they are boy scouts, play-acting in the woods – and thus the lack of women is explained. But is it justified?

In some ways: yes. The performances are uniformly strong, and the direction is sprightly and engaging. The set design (by Ryan Dawson Laight) is delightful, evoking a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like sense of magical unreality. It’s fun and it’s funny, accessible and entertaining. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

But it’s an odd thing to do, isn’t it? There are few enough parts for female actors, without appropriating those that do exist. Sasha Regan’s assertion that “the fact that we have men dressed as women is silly enough” doesn’t really tell us anything. Of course, there is a fine tradition of drag on the British stage, but I have to confess I’m not convinced it serves much purpose here.

Still, despite this reservation, there is much to admire. Alan Richardson’s portrayal of Yum-Yum is really rather lovely, while David McKechnie’s Ko-Ko is the comedic highlight of the piece. Richard Baker’s piano is faultless – I’ll never cease to be impressed by a one-person musical accompaniment to shows as demanding as these.

In short, this is a high quality piece, with commendable production values. I can’t pretend the all-male cast isn’t a problematic idea, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is excellent theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

17/05/17

Amidst the plethora of movies featuring characters in spandex and capes, the original Guardians of the Galaxy stood out from the competition. Funny, self-deprecating and soundtracked by a collection of 80s classics, it was an enjoyable space romp. It was, however, hampered by a couple of not-so-positive notes – a needlessly complicated plot and an evil villain who seemed to have wandered in from Casting Central. But the film was a huge hit and it was never in doubt that there would be a sequel. Director James Gunn is clearly on a roll – Volume 3 has just been announced.

It’s clear from the get-go that Volume 2 is going to be fun. The prologue is set in 1980 and features a young, fresh faced Kurt Russell (how the thump do that do that?) as an extra-terrestrial canoodling with an earthling woman. Then we jump twenty-eight years into the future and see the Guardians, battling a hideous space beast, which is trying to get its sneaky tentacles on some very powerful batteries. This film has a secret weapon, which its not afraid to deploy with lethal effect – and that weapon is Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, in what must have been the easiest voiceover  job in film history). This tiny offshoot of the original Groot is so downright adorable only the flintiest hearted viewers will be able to resist him. (Even the most heinous villains in the universe find themselves unable to dispose of him, which generally proves to be their undoing.)

Next up, the Guardians are visited by Ego (Kurt Russell, his real age now), who, in the best Star Wars tradition, announces that he is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father and he’s been trying to reconnect with him for years. He whisks Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) off to his home planet, which he has modestly named after himself and tells Peter that he is willing to share his super powers with his long lost son. He also introduces the team to Mantis (Pom Klimentieff), an empath, who can tell things about people simply by touching them – and who is clearly destined to be a member of the Guardians herself. But Gamora isn’t happy. She senses that something isn’t quite right about this set up. Meanwhile, back at the spaceship, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is being pursued by Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has a few Volume 1 scores to settle…

Okay, once again, this isn’t a perfect film. The central message – the importance of family love – is as unremittingly cheesy as any of Disney’s most cloying output – but, once again, it’s saved by the deliciously snarky dialogue and some genuinely funny jokes.  I particularly enjoy Drax’s spectacularly clumsy conversations with Mantis. There’s another classic rock soundtrack, and any film that has the good taste to use Cat Stevens’ Father and Son in a key scene is sure to earn some brownie points from me. If the movie’s final confrontation becomes too much of a pixel-fest, well, it’s probably to be expected of the genre, but for my money, this once again works best when it concentrates on the engaging interplay between the characters. Overall, I feel Volume 2 works better than the original.

Make sure you stay in your seats throughout the closing credits. There are not one, not two, but five short clips to whet your appetite for Guardians 3 – plus, the by now obligatory cameo for Stan Lee.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mindhorn

05/05/17

Here’s a bit of an oddity – a movie shot on the Isle of Man, that isn’t pretending to be Scotland or Ireland or Monte Carlo, but actually is, of all things, the Isle of Man. That’s because the location was the regular haunt of fictional 80s cop, Mindhorn (think a cross between Bergerac and the Six Million Dollar Man and you’re pretty much there). But time has moved on and actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Baratt) has lost his hair, developed a beergut and is finding it increasingly difficult to land decent acting work, reduced now to advertising corsets and support stockings. This is doubly annoying considering his old co-star, Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) has managed to string out his spin-off series, Windjammer for eight successful seasons and still lives on the island in unabashed luxury.

Thorncroft thinks he sees an opportunity to revitalise his own career, when a suspected serial killer, who calls himself ‘The Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey) announces to the police that he will talk to only one person – Mindhorn himself. Thorncroft heads back to his old stamping ground and begins to reconnect with people from his past – not least, his regular love interest on the series, Patricia Deville (Essie Davies) who now lives with Thorncroft’s old stunt stand in, Clive (Simon Farnaby). But as the events unfold, the former star is drawn into a bit of amateur sleuthing – and it becomes apparent that things may not be exactly what they seem…

Mindhorn may not be big on belly laughs, but it’s a decent comedy thriller with an appealing central premise and it’s shot through with a genuine sense of pathos. Thorncroft’s desperate need to rekindle his former star power verges on desperation only leads him, inevitably into deeper humiliation. The film boasts a starry cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Simon Callow, Harriet Walter and (in an uncredited cameo) Kenneth Branagh, who enjoys one of the film’s most outrageous scenes. Barrett makes a convincing transition to leading man and Essie Davies is also terrific as Mindhorn’s lost love. It’s clear from the outset that the two of them have some unfinished business.

So yes, enjoyably silly stuff. Make sure you stay till the end of the credits for a showing of Mindhorn’s wonderfully naff power ballad, You Can’t Handcuff the Wind, the dreadful lyrics of which may just be worth the price of admission alone.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Charlie Sonata

02/05/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Some playwrights tell their stories in straightforward terms – others prefer to take a more mysterious route, leaving you with several unanswered questions – and Douglas Maxwell’s Charlie Sonata falls very definitely into the latter category. And it’s all the more intriguing for it – if more difficult to pin down in a review. The play, brilliantly directed by Matthew Lenton, is an enchanting, magical tale that flirts with seemingly unconnected ideas: the concept of time travel, a famous fairy story and the era of Britpop.

Chick (Sandy Grierson), a hard drinking but immensely affable drifter, returns from London to his Scottish hometown when he hears that the teenage daughter of his old pal, Gary (Kevin Lennon), is in a coma following an accident. Chick hopes to reconnect with Gary –  and with his other best friend, Jackson (Robert Jack), but events keep getting in his way and he continually finds his thoughts shunted unexpectedly back to earlier, happier days at Stirling University, when the three young lads had no responsibilities. Jackson is fond of expounding his “non-negotiable” theories about time-travel. Chick is about to discover how negotiable they really are.

Pretty soon, Chick is back in the present day, hanging around the hospital, where he encounters mysterious ‘bad fairy’ Meredith (Meg Fraser), who is struggling with her own issues. Can she and Chick work together to release Gary’s daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), from her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ coma?

Nothing here is ever quite what it seems and, as the narrative switches effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, the scenes are linked by a commentary by The Narrator (Robbie Gordon), which adds to the story’s mythical feel. Grierson plays Chick with just the right mixture of vulnerability and intoxication – I’ve rarely been so convinced by an onstage ‘drunk’ – while the inventive production design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and the ethereal lighting by Kai Fischer, keep creating moments of real wonder that help to reinforce that all-important sense of magic.

This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding piece of theatre, based around – in Douglas Maxwell’s own words – ‘a fairy tale wish for another chance to make everything right.’ The audience’s enthusiastic response seems to confirm that this production has achieved its aims.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mad Max: Fury Road – the Black & Chrome Edition

31/04/17

Fury Road was easily my favourite movie of 2015. George Miller’s long awaited addition to the Mad Max series surpassed all my expectations – so much so, that I found myself going back for a second helping only a few days after the initial viewing (something I hardly ever do). For my money, this is the consummate action movie, a brilliant piece of world building with a visceral kinetic edge that had me on the edge of my seat, from its opening moments.

And now this: a black and white re-release! What the actual hey? But don’t jump to conclusions. What could at first seem like a mere act of vanity on Miller’s part quickly fades away when you discover that this is how he always intended the film to be shown. But his backers evidently didn’t see the wisdom in limiting its projected audience and insisted that he stick with colour. Now, after the original film’s well-deserved success, Miller finally gets to have his cake and eat it. And boy, what a glorious, delicious confection it is!

A quick resumé of the plot. Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by a war party belonging to disfigured despot, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and soon finds himself appropriated as a portable blood supply for young war-boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) decides to abscond with several of Joe’s captive wives, a furious chase ensues… which lasts for pretty much the entire film’s duration.

From the opening shot, it’s apparent that this is going to work – big time. The razor sharp monochrome landscapes lend the film a vintage epic feel, evoking memories of John Ford’s Western vistas, while the many close ups of faces in crowds put me in mind of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Sequences that I really didn’t think would work at all in this format are actually lent an added dimension. And in black and white, you are even more aware of Miller’s incredible attention to detail, from the costuming of his characters to the welded-together interiors of Imortan Joe’s war jalopies.

If you enjoyed the original film (and if not, why not?) you’ll relish the opportunity to view it with a fresh set of eyes – and if you hated it, well, this isn’t going to change your opinion one jot. Will there be another film in the series? Given that Miller is now in his seventies, that might not be a likely prospect, but, if the sequence does stop here, I have to say, it’s a pretty formidable, adrenalin-fueled swan song.

To paraphrase Nux: “What a film! What a wonderful film!’

5 stars

Philip Caveney