Month: November 2017

Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Ingrid Goes West

19/11/17

Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman with serious issues. Desperately lonely and hopelessly addicted to social media, she feels decidedly miffed when one of her ‘online friends’ has the temerity to get married without bothering to invite her. Most of us would shrug this off, but not Ingrid – she turns up at the wedding reception and treats the bride to a faceful of Mace. Needless to say, it doesn’t go down at all well.

After paying the price for her transgressions, Ingrid heads home to an empty house. We learn that her sick mother has recently passed away after a long illness, that Ingrid has spent the last few years caring for her, and that Mom has left her only daughter a considerable sum of money in her will. Leafing through a magazine one day, Ingrid chances upon an article about  the woman who will become her latest obsession. Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) is an Instagram ‘influencer’ who appears to be living the perfect boho lifestyle in sunny Los Angeles, with her artist boyfriend, Ezra (Wyatt Russell), and who can’t seem to smash an avocado without photographing it and adding a hashtag. For Ingrid, it’s love at first click – so she makes a cash withdrawal from the bank, buys a plane ticket and heads out to LA, where she rents an apartment from Batman-obsessed wannabe screenwriter, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jnr). Once settled in she sets about inveigling her way into Taylor’s world, frequenting all the places that feature in her online posts. Pretty soon, she is moving in Taylor’s exalted circles and ingratiating herself with her new ‘friends’ at every opportunity… but will this be enough to satisfy her longing for acceptance?

Ingrid Goes West is a prescient tale, skillfully told, and Plaza offers a powerful performance in the lead role, making us care about Ingrid at every step, no matter how heinous her actions. Olsen is good too, as the vain and exceedingly shallow Taylor – but then, nearly everyone here (apart from the exceedingly sweet-natured Dan) is as shallow as a kiddies’ paddling pool. I particularly like the examples we are shown of Ezra’s ‘art’, which consists of a single word printed onto a ‘found’ image (i.e. nicked from other photographers). Everything in this world, it transpires, is fake.

The script, co-written by director Matt Spicer, gleefully eviscerates the world of the online glitterati, people so obsessed with their own style that they seem to have lost their humanity. In less assured hands, this could so easily have been a dark and miserable descent into despair, but that sparkling script – and an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion – actually makes this a must-watch.

#DontMissIt!

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

17/11/17

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Peter Turner’s story. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, tells of Turner’s affair with fading film star, Gloria Grahame, and the extraordinary tale of how she came to live out her last days with his mum and dad in 1980s Liverpool.

The performances here are exemplary: both Jamie Bell (as Peter) and Annette Bening (as Gloria) are on top form, and their relationship is affectingly conveyed. Bening convinces absolutely as the ex-Hollywood sexpot, holding her head up high and forging a career in British theatre: proud but vulnerable; confident but insecure. Bell is also utterly credible as the young Turner, flattered by the attentions of someone so famous, falling hopelessly in love. And it’s a touching story: rejected by the film industry, out of touch with her family and dying of cancer, Gloria turns to her ex-lover for the warmth she knows his ‘ordinary’ family can offer, and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) are more than happy to oblige.

A shame, then, that there isn’t more on offer here. There’s a stellar cast without much to do: Vanessa Redgrave, as Gaynor’s mother, says almost nothing of note; Frances Barber, as her sister, does what she can with a couple of bitchy lines. Walters stands out, as she always does, but is criminally under-used, never called upon to offer anything more than ‘kindly mum.’ The marvellous Stephen Graham plays Peter’s brother, but his talent is wasted: he just sits at the kitchen table wearing one of Harry Enfield’s Scouser wigs, whinging occasionally and looking meaningfully at his strangely silent wife (Leanne Best).

I think the problem is that it’s all very rose-tinted, too closely based, perhaps, on Turner’s memoir, without enough space for the spiky complexity of human reality. It’s superficial and chocolate-boxy: a special memory preserved as in a photo-book, rather than an engaging film that allows its characters to show their flaws. And the story arc lacks drama too, never really building, never really drawing us in. This is a film that relies entirely on its central performances; the casting director (Debbie McWilliams) has done a sterling job; thanks to her, it’s not an entirely missed opportunity.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Trainspotting

14/11/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that it’s twenty four years since Irvine Welsh’s collection of short stories first recounted the adventures of Leith junkies, Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy – and twenty years since the iconic film version took the world by storm.

Tackling such a classic brings inevitable problems. The first half of this Citizens Theatre production has an air of over-familiarity about it, perhaps amplified by the fact that the characters and sets are styled very much like the movie. At times, it feels almost like we’re watching Danny Boyle’s Greatest Hits. All the best-known scenes from the film are present and correct – the hopeless work interview, the dead baby, the suppositories in the toilet (this scene evens receives a round of applause, which is weird, when you think about it – what are we actually applauding?).

None of this is the fault of the cast who deliver uniformly excellent performances – Lorn MacDonald is a superb Renton, Martin McCormick a brilliantly foul-mouthed Begbie… it’s just that I found myself longing for a few surprises.

Lucky for me then, that the second half actually supplies them, hewing much closer to Welsh’s original vision, managing to offer some scenes I’ve never seen before and some interesting variations on the ones I know by heart. Angus Miller takes on the dual roles of Sick Boy and the doomed, Tommy, while Gavin John Wright actually seems to be channeling Ewan Bremner as the hapless Spud. But perhaps its Chloe-Ann Taylor who has the most difficult job here, switching effortlessly from Alison, to Dianne and even, during the infamous ‘going cold turkey’ scenes, Renton’s Ma.

It’s not usually done to give a special mention to the set design (take a bow Max Jones) but the final scenes play out in an ingeniously designed London hotel room, which somehow glides slowly onstage like a kind of hallucination, creating a ‘wow’ moment all by itself.

Overall, this is an assured production; and when I think about it, maybe those familiar scenes just need to be there – otherwise it’s like going to see your favourite band in concert and them neglecting to play any of their best-known songs. A game of two halves then, Boyle versus Welsh. Whichever half you prefer, this is well worth your time and money.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Only the Brave

13/11/17

The poster for Only the Brave suggests we are in for a good old-fashioned disaster movie, but director Joseph Kosinski is clearly more interested in the characters who made up the real life Granite Mountain Hot Shots – a bunch of hard-as-nails firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona. While this is no doubt an admirable attempt to flesh out some genuine heroes, it fatally flaws the story arc of the film, which keeps breaking off from the action to regale us with some macho prank the boys have indulged in. The result is that the story only occasionally generates enough heat to keep an audience fully hooked.

Things begin well enough with Supervisor Eric Marsh (James Brolin) champing at the bit as he tries to obtain ‘hot shot’ status for his crew of municipal firefighters. (Without that tag they will always be relegated to a support role whenever there’s a major fire). Meanwhile, young hothead and general drug abuser, Brendan McCulloch (Miles Teller) gets his girlfriend pregnant and, in a desperate attempt to clean up his act, decides to put himself forward as a candidate for the fire team. Marsh, recognising something of himself in Brendan, decides to give him a chance and before very much longer, the Granite Mountain boys have their hot shot status and are working around the clock in a series of extremely dangerous situations. Meanwhile, their long suffering wives and girlfriends must endure the knowledge that their partners might never survive the latest disaster…

There’s clearly a fascinating (and it must be said, tragic) real life story at the heart of this, but with over twenty firefighters on the team, it’s hard for us to differentiate between more than just a few of them. And, if you’re blessed with Jeff Bridges in your cast, it might be a good idea to give him something to do. The female characters, mind you,  barely get a look in. Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife, Amanda, has something approaching a decent role but poor Andie McDowell is left to sit around, looking glum.

The ending when we get to it, is admittedly devastating – but by then, most of our goodwill for the film has gone up in smoke as the script cuts back and forth, recounting details that we really didn’t need to know about. Also, there’s a tendency here to assume we understand the principals of firefighting. Scenes where the team are actually setting fire to areas of forest in order to prevent the spread of an approaching conflagration might have needed a little more explanation. As it is, we’re just left to assume.

Ultimately, Only the Brave is a powerful story, awkwardly told. While it generates the occasional spark, it never really fully ignites.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Taxidi

12/11/17

Brougham Street, Edinburgh

Premises can change very quickly in Edinburgh. My Big Fat Greek Kitchen was already a long-established venue when we first moved here – indeed, we dined there on a friend’s recommendation shortly after arrival, and sampled a decent if somewhat unspectacular meal. Seemingly overnight, however, the place has been transformed – a lick of paint, an attractive alfresco dining area set up at the entrance and a radical change of focus to a cafe/bistro feel. We figure it is high time for a visit, so with two friends in tow, we make the short walk from our apartment on a chilly Sunday evening.

There’s a warm, welcoming atmosphere at Taxidi and the evident love for the Greek food they create here is apparent from the word go. We’re happy to accept the advice of the proprietor and decide to do everything mezze style – all four of us enjoying a little bit of the different dishes we order. The service is prompt and, almost before we know it, the dishes are arriving in quick succession. Such is our eagerness to sample them, that we completely forget to photograph anything, so it will be hard to fully convey the wonders that are arranged in front of us – but when I tell you that each course is more delicious that the last, then you’ll doubtless get the general idea.

We sample Favis Santorinas – a delicious gooey split-pea spread with caramelised onion, sort of like a hot hummus, but way more interesting; Talagani – grilled sheep’s cheese from Messenia, served with rocket and a tangy orange marmalade; Kolokythokeftedes – crispy courgette fritters, as light as you please, and dressed with onion, mint, parsley, dill and feta cheese; Melitzana – grilled aubergines with feta, parsley, garlic, olive oil and served with a thick yoghurt sauce (I’m not usually a big fan of aubergines but these are splendid); keftedes tis giagias Daphenes – succulent spicy meatballs made with beef and pork and also served with that fabulous yoghurt sauce. There’s a generously filled bread basket with a scattering of salty black olives on the side and, of course, plenty of pitta bread – quite the nicest I can remember eating, sprinkled with olive oil, salt and oregano. Everything is freshly prepared and simply but beautifully presented and, after we have fallen upon it like ravenous wolves, not one scrap of food is left on the plates – unless of course, you count the olive pits. Indeed, after a quick discussion, we decide that we can’t find a single thing to fault with any of the dishes we’ve eaten.

Ah, but what about the puddings, you might ask? They can often be the stumbling block that lets a meal down. Well, happily, that’s not the case here. We order four sweets and dutifully divide them up. They comprise: loukomades – Greek style doughnuts with honey and walnuts (if the meal has one standout dish, this is probably it – it’s like heaven on a plate); Ekmek Kantaifi – layers of phyllo, with Mastiha flavoured custard, whipped cream and pistachios; Kazan Ntipi – a rich and creamy Byzantine style panna cotta – and finally, Joanne’s Orange Cake, which tastes a lot more exotic than it sounds, a slice of sponge soaked with orange syrup. In case that isn’t enough, we’re offered a lovely warming shot of Mastika, a Greek liqueur, which we happily accept – and which brings this exciting meal to a suitably warming conclusion.

OK, I need to criticise something, so I will say that perhaps just one choice of Greek white or red wine on the drinks menu seems a little… er, Spartan. Maybe that’s something that might be developed later? But hey, it’s not a deal breaker.

Taxidi offers proper Greek cuisine at great value for money prices – and I would also add that, if you’re vegetarian, or have friends of that persuasion, this is an inspired place to eat – and proof if ever it were needed, that sometimes a change can be for the better.

Go, enjoy. I think you’ll love this as much as we do.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Florida Project

11/11/17

The Florida Project is my favourite film of the year so far – and there are only a few weeks left of 2017 for any new contenders to knock it off its perch. It’s a real gem: imagine Ken Loach Does Disney and you won’t be far off.

In fact, though, it’s Sean Baker exposing the tragic underbelly of the Magic Kingdom and, if this is anything to go by, the forty-six-year-old writer-director has an important career ahead of him, chronicling the travails of the American poor, living precariously in motels, lurching from one inadequate paycheck to the next.

There is real beauty in this film: Brooklynn Prince, as six-year-old Moonee, is an absolute delight, all swagger and daring, as cheeky and charming as it’s possible to be. She feels real, a happy, confident kid, who knows she’s loved and cared for, and doesn’t worry about much. Because her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), might be living on the edge – struggling to find work, doing whatever she has to in order to pay the rent – but she never once lets Moonee down. She’s there for her, always, ensuring Moonee is fed and bathed, enjoying life. She’s a textbook problem parent – jobless, feckless, dabbling in drugs and prostitution – but this film shows us how wrong the textbook is.

It’s heartbreaking though; no one should have to live as uncertainly as this, especially not in the world’s richest country. Disney World’s looming presence, just out of reach, serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor: we see the glitz and glamour of the phony castle, while the squalid truth lurks just beneath. At least Halley’s found them a decent motel, with a caring manager called Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who keeps the place clean and tidy, and respects the residents. But they’re still living in one room, forced to participate in the farce of ‘moving out’ once a month so that they don’t accrue any rights as residents. They’re still eating food delivered by a charity, all cheap sugary carbs, presumably stale and out of date.

The cinematography is striking: the overwhelming impression is of cheeriness and colour. This is Moonee’s world and, free for the summer from the confines of school, she owns it, roaming freely and playing host to new motel guest, Jancy (Valeria Cotto), who’s staying with her grandmother (Josie Olivo), while her own mom ‘sorts herself out.’ Jancy’s grandma provides an oasis of calm: she has things very much sorted out; she might be poor and living in a motel, but she cooks proper food and is hot on discipline. Almost everyone here is decent, really, looking out for each other, doing their best. It’s a warm-hearted and affectionate depiction of those who are often disparaged. It’s also a searing damnation of a system that lets its people down, and its shattering conclusion is utterly devastating. Baker is clearly a film-maker with a lot to say – and he says it very well.

5 stars

Susan Singfield