Month: July 2017

Dine

29/07/17

Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, Edinburgh

We’re meeting up with some old friends and we’ve been meaning to try Dine for a while now, so it seems like the ideal time to give the place a whirl. Since we’re eating fairly early, we have the opportunity to select from the market menu, which comes in at a very reasonable £19.50 for three courses. Michelin-starred chef Stuart Muir claims to have created a series of contemporary twists on classic dishes and our expectations are high.

The room above the Traverse theatre is a delightful setting for a meal: it’s spacious and circular with dark wooden flooring, giving a surprisingly intimate feel; the tables are arranged around a central and remarkably realistic apple tree. The staff are friendly and chatty – attentive without being obtrusive. Drinks are duly ordered and the starters arrive promptly.

I opt for the cured sea trout, which, though not the most photogenic thing on the menu, is really quite delicious, served with pickled green apple, burnt cucumber, yoghurt and dill. Susan has the heritage tomatoes, which are bursting with flavour, nestling on goats cheese, black olive crumb, filo and basil. Our companions go for the smoked Ayrshire ham hock terrine with carrot chutney, pickled heritage carrots, watercress and sourdough. It looks splendid but I’m not offered a taste, no matter how many hints I drop!

The main courses are equally assured. Susan’s Perthshire chicken is agreeably moist and succulent, served with sweetcorn puree, burnt sweetcorn, baby gem and pickled trompettes. I sample the (very alliterative) braised brisket of borders beef (try saying that with a mouthful of garden peas!), served with truffle polenta cake, burnt onion puree and tender steam broccoli. Brisket is notoriously hard to get right, but this is as tender as you’d want, and coated with a sticky, piquant sauce. A slice of this meat nestled on a chunk of polenta cake makes for a very pleasing contrast. Excellent.

Puddings? Well, Susan orders the Blacketyside farm strawberries – these come with mascarpone, meringue, 12-year-old balsamic, basil and a scoop of strawberry sorbet. It’s a pretty spectacular concoction, hitting all the sweet notes in perfect harmony. I go for the selection of British cheese, with crackers and a rich, fruity chutney. Since cutting down on dairy products in my everyday diet, this is a chance to be a bit decadent and the three cheeses I’m served are generously proportioned and lip-smackingly good. (Had I been a bit more organised I’d have made a note of their names, but I was too busy devouring them to take time out to do that, so suffice to say that Dine does excellent cheese.)

This was fine dining prepared to a very high standard, offered at a very reasonable price in a charming location. Any way you look at it, it ticks all the boxes. With the madness of the fringe only days away, make sure you book early to avoid disappointment.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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47 Meters Down

27/07/17

You may experience a scratching noise during screenings of this film. Don’t be alarmed, it’s only the sound of viewers drawing a line through ‘Swimming with Sharks’ on their bucket list – or quite possibly, somebody from the Mexican tourist board composing a letter of protest.

Lisa (Mandy Moore) has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, just weeks before the two of them were due to jet off for a dream holiday in Mexico. Trying to make the best of things, Lisa offers the place to her younger, more outgoing sister, Kate (Claire Holt). Kate’s method of getting Lisa over this obvious downer is to take her out dancing, encouraging her to snog a local hottie and then to enlist her on a ‘swimming with sharks’ experience in a rusty, leaking old tub, with a crew that take absolutely no notice of the fact that Lisa has never scuba dived before. Health and safety? Pah! This is Mexico! Who bothers with such outmoded ideas? They even practice the outlawed art of ‘chumming’ – throwing rotting fish into the water to attract the bigger sharks.

Needless to say, it works and the sisters are soon in a ramshackle metal cage, surrounded by giant fish. But, after an ancient piece of machinery fails, they promptly find themselves at the bottom of the ocean (47 meters down, obvs) with their oxygen fast running out and some (entirely convincing) CGI sharks prowling around in search of sustenance. These scenes are undeniably effective, generating almost unbearable levels of tension and making viewers feel every bit as breathless as the sisters.

Rather less seaworthy, however, are the passages where the young women discuss their relationship (as you tend to when surrounded by sharks) and the way they feel obliged to keep reminding each other of how long they have left before their oxygen runs out. Worse still is the presence of jobbing actor, Matthew Modine as Captain Taylor, (he might just as well have been called Captain Exposition). Unseen for most of the film, he’s required to keep warning the women, via a dodgy radio link, that divers who take on too much oxygen or attempt to surface too quickly, can suffer from ‘the bends’. This may cause hallucinations, he tells them, repeatedly. Just in case we’re in any doubt about some of the things that occur in later scenes.

The ending is divisive. A gentleman sitting next to us expressed his views in no uncertain terms, (“That was a load of shit!”), but I actually liked the fact that it tries for something less straightforward than is usual in movies of this genre.  Director Johannes Roberts definitely has a flair for terrorising audiences, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next. (Hopefully somewhere that comes equipped with a better scriptwriter).

While this film has some evident flaws, there’s no denying the enduring appeal of sharks vs humans. But if you’re one of those intrepid people who are planning this kind of holiday experience in the near future, I’d give this one a wide berth.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Big Sick

23/07/17

The Big Sick is a fascinating movie: a rom-com for the modern age. Despite being produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Knocked Up), the ‘com’ part of the equation is relatively subtle, avoiding (for the most part) the broad, scatalogical approach for which he is famed. Instead, this is a gentle, honest exploration of cross-cultural love and the complexities of modern relationships.

Based on the true story of writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the film charts the initial stages of their romance as they negotiate the choppy waters of one-night stands, reluctantly-developing feelings and parental expectations. When a sudden, devastating illness is added to the mix, it seems as if the relationship might break under the strain.

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself, which adds to the sense of truthfulness. His performance is both charming and understated, with a quirky mix of confidence and modesty, which is very appealing indeed. He doesn’t self-aggrandize, but nor does he self-deprecate in that ostentatious, humble-bragging manner some comedians employ. And his account of his family is affectionate and kind, even though he’s largely shown in opposition to them. They want him to become a lawyer; they want him to be a devout Muslim; they want to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. None of these things coincides with what Kumail wants for himself: he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian; he’s not sure about his faith. But his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are not his enemies: they are his family and they love him as much as he loves them. Their marriage is happy, and so is his brother, Naveed (Adeel Ahktar)’s: they all just want the best for him. The women they introduce him to are not awful; they’re real, believable people: attractive, intelligent, with interests of their own. But Kumail has fallen for Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). And she doesn’t fit the mould because she’s a white American.

As for grad-student psychologist Emily, she’s appalled to discover that Kumail is considering an arranged marriage, and that his plans for the future don’t necessarily include her. She’s in love with him, and devastated by the realisation that he’s caught between two worlds. “I can’t be the reason you lose your family,” she tells him. It’s too big, too much.

When Emily falls ill, however, Kumail is forced to confront his feelings and make a decision. He can’t coast along trying to appease everyone forever.

It doesn’t sound very amusing when it’s summarised, but this film is as irreverently funny as it is moving. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are hilarious as Emily’s bickering parents, and Kher and Shroff’s disapproving double act is also excellent. The scenes backstage in the comedy club are illuminating, and benefit from a convincing shot of authenticity – after all, this is a world that seasoned stand-up Nanjiani knows well.

Really, this is a delightful film, with such a lot going for it. But don’t go along expecting a gross-out comedy. This is something way more interesting.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Dunkirk

22/07/17

Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.

The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.

Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.

And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.

But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.

This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.

Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Whist

22/07/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a rainy morning in Edinburgh, the perfect time to seek escape from reality. Upstairs in the bar at the Festival theatre may seem an unlikely location for such an escape, but it’s soon to be transformed into a landscape of the imagination, courtesy of dance company AOE and some nifty virtual reality headsets. Helpers are on hand to show us initially around what looks like a random selection of rather unprepossessing objects; we are told that, when these shapes are looked at through our headsets, they will unlock a series of sequences inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

So, we allow ourselves to be fitted out with said headsets and we regard the first object we come to and… wow, this actually works! All of a sudden, I am standing mid-air in the centre of a dilapidated room, a room I can see in perfect detail, whichever way I choose to look. I can’t help but notice a rather ominous wooden chest in the corner and, as I watch (rather nervously, it has to be said), a woman emerges from the box and starts to chalk obscure symbols all over the wooden floor…

It’s hard to fully describe the impact of these ‘visions’. There’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the various characters that wander in and out of the (seemingly unconnected) sequences and, often, a startling moment when they look directly at me and I become convinced that they know I am here, that they can see me watching them. The scenes range from the creepy to the baffling to the vaguely erotic. In my favourite sequence, I’m standing on a dinner table, my feet resting on a plate of bloody hearts. Around me, three diners are tucking in to the raw meat, drinking wine and shooting me challenging looks. I feel obliged to keep spinning around to make sure I take in all of their reactions. One of them looks a bit handy with a steak knife and I get the distinct impression they don’t much like me standing in the middle of their dinner…

There’s no through-storyline here. Each individual scenario is something that could have evolved from a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Birth seems to be a recurring theme and also, the subjugation of women. There’s a moment when I really want to step in to help somebody who is being manhandled, but I can’t, because I’m not actually there even though it feels like I am – and then there’s a moment when I suddenly find myself drifting alone through the cosmos and I nearly cry out with the wonder of it. I look down and it feels like I could fall forever…

The experience lasts an hour (which is probably just about the right duration) and I have to say, it’s pretty intense. For a while after it’s over, I have the conviction that the real word I’ve returned to is pretty damned strange (particularly when I spot Jarvis Cocker standing on the other side of the road) but that feeling soon passes. After all this is Edinburgh and the festival is fast approaching. Why shouldn’t Jarvis Cocker be around? Whist feels decidedly like it should be part of the festival, but it’s here right now and it’s one of the strangest, most immersive experiences I’ve ever had.

I urge everyone who can to pop along to the Festival Theatre and give it a try. It’s there until early August. There’s a limit of twenty participants per show, so get those tickets booked and dive right in. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, maybe even a little bit freaked… but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored, not for a moment.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Fame: The Musical

Unknown

21/07/17

Alan Parker’s 1980 movie, Fame, is the film that launched a million star jumps – and, throughout the 1980s, the television series captured the imaginations of countless more viewers. This musical by The Beyond Broadway Experience manages to take the essence of the concept and uncork it spectacularly in the splendid surroundings of the King’s Theatre. I should point out that this is an amateur production but, like many of the community shows here, it makes you want to find a better word than ‘amateur’ to describe what’s happening, because it’s genuinely dazzling.

The musical follows a cohort of successful applicants through their time at the New York High School of Performing Arts (a genuine establishment with incredibly exacting standards). There’s Tyrone (Rory McLeod), strutting and dancing up a storm, but hiding the fact that he’s dyslexic. There’s Carmen (Caitlin Tipping), bold, brassy and struggling to control a fatal fascination with the street drugs that keep her dancer-thin. There’s Nick (Reuben Woolard), already the star of a peanut butter TV commercial, but desperate to prove himself as a genuine actor, and there’s Serena (Melissa McNaught), a shy girl with a huge voice who finds herself a little bit fixated on Nick.

But perhaps it’s unfair to single out individuals – although Mabel (Sarah Kerr)’s singing is so impressive it gives me chills – because the whole company performs with such aplomb. Choreographer Murray Grant has somehow schooled one hundred and sixty (count them!) young actors into giving the performances of their lives – they jump, twirl and pirouette around the crowded stage with perfect precision and during the song  Dancing On The Sidewalk actually burst off the stage and through the audience in a display of infectious enthusiasm that nearly lifts the roof off the theatre. This is a thrilling production and director Gerard Bentall should really take a well-deserved bow for helming this complex piece so expertly.

The show’s only on for one more night at the King’s but, if you can get seats for it, I’d advise you to grab them. If the pizzazz and energy from tonight’s performance could be bottled we’d all live an extra ten years – and with great big smiles on our faces too.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

To the Bone

19/07/17

Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film, and might not have done had the weather been nicer, had I not already seen all Cineworld had to offer, and had I not imposed upon myself a ‘Dry July’ and thus removed the option of going to the pub. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s scathing review in The Guardian and feared it might be a misogynistic, voyeuristic old mess. But, actually, this Netflix Original well exceeded my expectations, and I think it merits a (cautiously) positive response.

To be clear, I have no personal experience of eating disorders, and am in no way dismissing Freeman’s more informed opinion. Hers is the insider’s view. But, from an outsider’s perspective, this film ain’t bad at all.

It tells the tale of Ellen (or Eli), played with frail intensity by Lily Collins (last seen as Red, an animal rights activist in Okja, looking a lot healthier than she does here). Ellen has suffered from anorexia for years; the film begins with her leaving a treatment centre, and moving in with her half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato) and stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston). It’s clearly an awkward fit: although Ellen and Kelly get on very well, Ellen finds Susan insensitive and unhelpful.  But she has little choice: her father, who ostensibly lives in the same house, is wholly absent from the film, and  her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), who has recently relocated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), is adamant that she “cannot deal” with Ellen’s problems in her life. In desperation, frightened by Ellen’s plummeting weight and left alone to cope with it, Susan makes a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, and settles on the in-patient therapy offered by unorthodox doctor, William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Actually, Dr Beckham doesn’t seem to do much at all. He talks honestly to Ellen without pulling any punches; he tells her that, if she continues as she is, it won’t be long before she dies. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what the actual treatment is. There’s an attempt to make mealtimes less stressful (the in-patients all have to sit at the dinner table, but they’re not compelled to eat), and a calm and caring atmosphere is created in the centre. Ellen makes friends there, most notably the intensely irritating Luke (Alex Sharp), whose know-it-all attitude is sickeningly patronising – although Ellen doesn’t seem to notice, so perhaps that’s just me – but still, it’s not made clear how this place and process help.

But I don’t think the film is really about that: it’s not a treatment manual. It’s more an exploration of the impact and effects of this terrible condition, both on the sufferers and on those around them. Characters that begin as almost comic caricatures (e.g. Susan) are revealed as complex and conflicted, struggling to deal with watching Ellen self-destruct. Judy’s anguish is made clear too, in a later scene, as is Ellen’s fear and her inability to stop.

Freeman condemns the film for glamourising anorexia (“it’s not all thigh gaps and eyeliner”), and there’s no denying that Collins looks beautiful most of the time. But I’m not sure that’s this film’s fault: as scarily skinny as she is in this, Collins looks exactly like a lot of film stars and fashion models; her big-eyed, sharp-jawed face is not alien at all. She’s the epitome of what we’re told is good. And maybe, just maybe, that’s an important point to make.

I don’t think this is a film that purports to have the answers. I think it’s just a story, a tragic tale of one girl’s life. Of course, that doesn’t let it off the hook. But it seems to be a tale well-told, even if there is no universal truth revealed.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield