Month: July 2017

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 al,l 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

The Beguiled

15/07/17

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.

But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.

Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona  Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.

It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes

14/07/17

Ape-related homages to Apocalypse Now are a bit like buses. You wait for ages and then two come along more or less at the same time. The first homage, was of course, Kong: Skull Island. The second is this, the third instalment in the Planet of the Apes reboot, a franchise that has proved to be surprisingly watchable considering the damp squib that was Tim Burton’s foray into the simian world. This new adventure is also eminently entertaining, but there’s a real problem at its heart, which few reviewers seem prepared to entertain – and that is its almost total lack of any roles for women.

We encounter just two female characters in the whole film. Young orphan, Nova (Amiah Miller), who is mute, and Lake (Sarah Canning), a chimpanzee, who is tasked with looking after Caesar’s young son, Cornelius. Because, of course, childminding is the one job that has to be done by a female. Apart from a couple of glimpses of faces in crowds, that’s it. And there are LOADS of characters in this movie. Why are they all male? This doesn’t feel like a deliberate slight on the part of director, Matt Reeves, but it’s a a major oversight, a warped and weirdly lopsided vision of society, and in this day and age, it should never have been allowed to happen – and it’s definitely knocked the overall points for this movie down a few notches.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy here. It’s three years after the events of Dawn, and Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads his simian followers against what’s left of humanity. One soldier in particular, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, as a Kurtz-type zealot) has set himself the task of wiping the apes off the face of the planet, blaming them for the demise of mankind. When he mounts a sneak attack on the apes’ hideout, Caesar suffers a personal loss, an event that unhinges him and sends him on the path of revenge, accompanied by three of his most trusted companions. On route to the Colonel’s headquarters, they encounter ‘Bad Ape’ (Steve Zahn), a former zoo inhabitant, whose presence here is clearly to provide some much needed comic relief. As the apes ride on horseback through increasingly snowbound terrain, the film echoes John Ford’s epic western  The Searchers  in its look and feel – and then, bizarrely, it all turns decidedly biblical, as Caesar evolves into a kind of hairy Christ figure, mocked, scourged and (just in case you missed the reference) crucified by his human oppressors.

Though the title might lead you to expect a full-on war movie, that’s really not what the film’s about;  it’s more cerebral than anything else – though there are some cracking battle scenes, including a major blitzkrieg towards the movie’s conclusion. All-in-all, it’s very watchable and, though it might not be quite as sharp as the two preceding stories, it’s nonetheless an absorbing piece of cinema and (lest we forget) a brilliant technical accomplishment. The apes are perfectly rendered in every detail – snow slicked fur is apparently the hardest thing to get right – and they are convincingly set within their locations. Serkis has been very vocal about giving motion-capture performers the kudos they deserve and War is a perfect advertisement for what this relatively young technique can achieve. It’s an epic, thought-provoking film.

But no real roles for women, human or ape? Come on, we can do better that that!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

It Comes at Night

11/07/17

What is the disease that’s afflicting America? In Trey Edward Schults’ stylish dystopian fear-flick, it appears to be an airborne virus that’s decimating the population, and isolating survivors. Joel Edgerton stars as Paul, an ex-history teacher holed up in his family home with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They’re paranoid and distrustful, trapped in their sealed sanctuary, donning gas masks and carrying guns whenever they’re compelled to venture into the outside world.

Staggering into this powder-keg of neuroses is Will (Christopher Abbott), desperately seeking shelter for his young family. He, his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their infant son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), are reluctantly invited to move in, albeit with very strict parameters. But things are bound to go wrong.’Trust no-one,’ Paul tells Travis. ‘You can’t trust anyone except your family.’ Suspicion and wariness pervade every interaction: it’s a recipe for disaster.

The film is fiercely intense. Okay, so the allegory isn’t particularly subtle: the fear and ‘othering’ of outsiders is, in fact, the disease – and it’s the same one that’s afflicting the real America today. Scare-mongering about refugees, seeking to impose travel-bans: these isolationist behaviours do not auger well. Without trust and cohesion, society can’t work.

It’s a tightly crafted film, with a real sense of claustrophobia throughout. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is particularly mesmerising as the teenage boy, struggling to mature in a disintegrating world with no peers with whom to compare experiences.  And I like that there are no ‘baddies’ here, just individuals seeking to protect themselves and their families, unwittingly destroying all that they hold dear. As their circle shrinks ever smaller, there is less and less to hold on to, and the ending (which I won’t spoil here) is beautifully bleak.

This is a sly, thought-provoking little film, with plenty to ponder and discuss after the credits roll.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Okja

10/07/17

This bizarre fantasy movie, helmed by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), caused some controversy at Cannes earlier this year because, as a ‘Netfix Original,’ it had no theatrical release and was therefore ineligible to compete with its more traditional brethren. But the cinematic world is rapidly changing and however a film is released, it surely deserves proper consideration. Whatever – it’s now available for all Netflix subscribers to see whenever they want.

The titular heroine of the film is not a human character, but a pig – a genetically engineered ‘super pig’ – bigger than your average farmyard swine and designed especially to feed a rapidly burgeoning population. Okja is one of ten specially selected pigs, sent out to farms across the globe and left to mature for ten years, before being recalled to participate in a competition to decide which is the best specimen. The competition is the brainchild of Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), CEO of the Mirando corporation, and the competition merely a ruse to cloak the cold brutality of the operation with a cheesy PR campaign.

Okja lives on a remote farm in the mountains of South Korea, with Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), a little girl who has come to regard the creature as a friend and equal. These early sequences are an unqualified delight. Okja is a superb CGI creation, beautifully realised amid lush mountain locations and sophisticated enough to challenge the best of Hollywood’s FX output. Okja and Mija live an idyllic existence until the arrival of a PR team from Mirando at the farm, led by the manic Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, a character apparently inspired by the late Johnny Morris). Before Mija knows what’s happening Okja has been pignapped and taken to Seoul, where (in the film’s standout sequence) she runs amok in a shopping arcade with Mija in hot pursuit.

Then a group of zany animal activists arrive on the scene led by Jay (Paul Dano) and suddenly the film isn’t quite so sure of itself. The main problem from  here is one of indecision about what the film is actually trying to be. What seems at first to be a charming, child-friendly concept rapidly turns into something much more controversial, replete with F-bombs, bloodshed and one scene so downright distressing it seems to have wandered in from an 18 certificate horror movie. Ultimately, this feels like a parable about the virtues of a vegetarian diet but, if that is the aim, it hasn’t been fully thought-through. Also, many of the film’s human protagonists have a tendency to come across as shrill caricatures (Gyllenhaal’s character, for example, a former animal lover driven to destroy everything he believes in, doesn’t really convince: there’s simply not enough evidence of any motivation here).

As the film thunders into its final strait it rallies somewhat, but the damage has already been done. Bong Joon-Ho is undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker but this falls somewhat short of his best efforts – nevertheless, it’s still a brave attempt to push the boundaries beyond the norm and is well worth checking out – if only  for those delightful early scenes.

Just don’t make the mistake of letting younger children watch it, unless you want tears before bedtime.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney