Month: January 2018

The Shape of Water

30/01/18

The release of a Guillermo del Toro movie is generally a cause for some excitement, but The Shape of Water arrives in the UK already garlanded with 13 Oscar nominations – this year’s most nominated film. It’s an unusual state of affairs because fantasy movies rarely get much of a look in at the Academy Awards, apart from the occasional grudging nod for special effects and cinematography. It doesn’t take long, however, to appreciate how this film has managed to garner so much acclaim. It’s a gorgeous, multi-faceted allegory that isn’t adverse to taking risks – The Creature From the Black Lagoon dancing in a Busby Berkeley routine? Hey, no problem!

To my mind, there are actually two del Toros out there – the one that creates eerie fairytale fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and the one that offers us the likes of Pacific Rim, where giant robots punch colossal lizards repeatedly in the head until (eventually) they die. Take a wild guess as to which del Toro I personally favour! I’m glad to report that The Shape of Water falls squarely into the former category.

We’re in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a reclusive mute woman, works as a cleaner in a high security government laboratory, alongside her supportive friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a mysterious new life form – simply referred to as ‘The Asset’, arrives for safekeeping – it is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, excelling in what must be his most repellant role to date). It turns out that the lab’s new addition is some kind of amphibious man, captured in the jungles of South America, where he is worshipped as a god – and it soon becomes clear that Strickland’s job is less to find out about this new acquisition than to make sure the Russians never do. Resident scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is interested in studying the creature, but the American military seems determined to view it as a suitable candidate for vivisection. Meanwhile, Elisa is beginning to establish a strange and deepening friendship with it…

The outline of the story itself may sound vaguely ridiculous, but it simply cannot prepare you for how utterly compelling del Toro’s film is. It’s a multi-layered affair, beautifully shot and cleverly scripted. Elisa is an outcast, watching from the edges of society, and her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic designer, is in a similar position, exiled from his regular place of work because he is secretly gay. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the early sixties is brilliantly conveyed. All-American diners seem friendly as they sell their day-glo green pies, but won’t allow black people to eat alongside their white customers. The old-fashioned cinema above which Elisa and Giles live plays to nearly empty houses every night because of the growing power of television, and yet every TV screen we see displays a series of classic movie comedies and sumptuous musicals. The Asset too is an outcast, a creature that doesn’t belong in this blinkered, paranoid world. Little wonder then, that both Elisa and Giles fall under his spell.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Every frame of it bursts with creativity, the performances are exemplary (special mentions should go to Hawkins – who manages to convey so much without the luxury of words, and to del Toro regular, Doug Jones – who makes us care deeply about his scaly bug-eyed character and about what will ultimately happen to him).

I appreciate that not everybody is going to love this as much as I do. It requires an almost total suspension of disbelief; this is in no way a realistic film. It’s a fantasy that deals in archetypes, a contemporary reworking of a tale that could have bled from the pens of the Brothers Grimm, juxtaposing scenes of beguiling sweetness with ones of graphic violence. I watch it spellbound. I had thought that del Toro couldn’t possibly improve on Pan’s Labyrinth, but you know what? I rather think he has.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Early Man

27/01/18

If the film industry ever handed out awards for sheer determination, Nick Park and his animation team would surely be first in line to pick up a gong. Give these people an unlimited supply of plasticine and several years in which to manipulate it and they’ll invariably come up with something eminently watchable. That said, it’s many years since the likes of The Wrong Trousers first brought Park to widespread attention and there’s something dispiritingly familiar about Early Man. Furthermore, set it alongside the jaw dropping spectacle of Coco and you begin to sense the limitations of the medium. Plasticine, when all is said and done, can only stretch so far…

Early Man opens in Manchester in the ‘pre pleistocene’ era as cavemen slug it out alongside a couple of warring dinosaurs. (This, of course, is an affectionate tribute to the work of pioneer animator Ray Harryhausen – apparently One Million Years BC was the film that first inspired a young Nick Park to experiment with a movie camera.) A sudden meteor strike eliminates the remaining dinosaurs and inadvertently inspires the surviving cavemen to invent the game of football.

Many eons later, we are introduced to a tribe of Stone Age warriors living in the fertile valley created by the meteor strike. Led by the cautious Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the tribe spends much of its time hunting rabbits, but plucky, snaggle-toothed youngster Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has loftier ambitions. Why not hunt mammoths, he reasons? There’s a lot more meat on them. Bobnar, however, is reluctant to accept any form of change.

But change soon arrives anyway, in the shape of a tribe of bronze age conquerors, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston sporting an ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent). He wishes to mine the valley for it’s rich bronze deposits and Bobnar’s tribe soon find themselves banished to the volcanic badlands – but not before Dug has been kidnapped and taken to Lord Nooth’s stronghold. Here, he discovers that this technologically advanced civilisation is addicted to two things – capitalism and football, a game that Dug’s tribe have somehow managed to forget over the years. In a desperate bid to save his homeland, Dug challenges Nooth’s resident team – Real Bronzio – to a football match. If Dug’s tribe wins they get to stay in their beloved valley. If they lose, they will be condemned to work in the bronze mines until they die… so, no pressure there.

Okay, it’s a promising concept and Park manages to exploit it skilfully enough, finding much humour in the telling, even if some of the jokes are so old they might have originated in the Stone Age themselves. The tribe’s smaller roles are filled by a stellar cast of voice artists and Park supplies all the requisite grunts for Dug’s porcine sidekick, Hognob. If, like me, you don’t care a jot for soccer, don’t despair, it’s not going to spoil your enjoyment of this quirky and typically charming story one little bit. But you may find yourself wondering, as I did, where Park goes from here. A pre-film trailer announcing that Shaun the Sheep is a mere year away doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation… and we’ve been hearing for a long time that a new Wallace and Gromit is still in the pipeline, despite the death of Peter Sallis.

But wouldn’t it be great to see Nick Park try something completely different? Something totally unexpected? Meanwhile, Early Man offers an enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, even if there are no real surprises on offer.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lover

23/01/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I was sold on this production from the moment I saw it featured Susan Vidler, whom I’ve long admired. (It’s 1997, there’s a TV movie everyone’s talking about: Macbeth on the Estate. Vidler gives the best portrayal of Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen. There’s been a score of contenders since, but she still wears the crown.)

In The Lover, she plays a very different role. She’s The Woman, both mother and future self of The Girl (the child is mother of the woman, I suppose) and almost the sole voice of the play. To clarify, she live-narrates the story of her past, and also provides a recorded voice-over for other actors who mime flashbacks. In the flashbacks, she’s The Mother; Amy Hollinshead plays The Girl. And it’s all very clever and artful – perhaps too much so?

Still, based on Margeurite Duras’s novel set in 1920s Saigon, this co-production between the Lyceum, Stellar Quines and Scottish Dance Theatre was surely never aiming for the mainstream. It’s a complex tale of love and loss, of colonialism and privilege, of innocence and experience. If ever a tale were to lend itself to a dual-form adaptation, The Lover is surely it: its poetic language ripe for interpetation in this way.

Directed by Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick, The Lover shows how dance and theatre are complementary arts. The literal and the metaphorical are interwoven in the telling, The [poor teenage French] Girl’s love affair with The [rich Chinese twenty-seven-year-old] Man (Yosuke Kusano) a slow, sensual unravelling of accepted social norms. The gulf that develops between her and her family; the way she is subsumed by her sexuality: these are beautifully conveyed.

But it’s not an easy watch. That voice-over – so intricately worked, so delicately spoken – has such a distancing effect that it renders all emotion mute. The very control and precision of the movement makes the sex scenes curiously staid, a notion that is heightened by the Ken and Barbie genitals suggested by flesh-coloured underwear. And perhaps I’m being a bit dense (I haven’t read the novel; this may be made clear there), but I’m not at all sure what the deal is between the girl and her big brother, Paulo (Francesco Ferrari).

There is artistry and skill a-plenty here; it’s a beautifully constructed piece. Will it be a big-hitter, a seat-filler? I’m not convinced on that score. A play to appreciate, maybe, rather than one to enjoy.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

The Post

21/01/18

In the era of fake news, here’s an interesting concept – a film about real news. More specifically, a film about a newspaper’s quest to tell the truth that doesn’t come across as some kind of hollow joke. There was a time, it seems, when newspapers were prepared to risk everything to fight for the right to free speech, and that time was 1971.

Stephen Spielberg’s The Post may be set in the past but its story couldn’t be more prescient. We’ve recently had the Paradise Papers, but back then it was The Pentagon Papers, a series of purloined documents that proved that President Nixon’s administration – and indeed, many others before it – had lied to the American public about the Vietnam war, insisting that it was a winnable cause even when they all knew full well it wasn’t. This secret sent untold numbers of young soldiers to their deaths.

When reporter Daniel Elisberg (Matthew Rhys) learns of this, he decides to turn whistleblower, stealing a bundle of secret government files and handing them over to the New York Times. They have every intention of publishing the story, but Tricky Dicky gets wind of their plans and serves them with an injunction, forbidding them to go to print. The files subsequently find their way onto the desk of a reporter for the Washington Post. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is eager to get the scoop, but first he must convince the Post’s owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to give him the green light. Graham is struggling to assert her authority at The Post just as it prepares itself to float on the stock market. Having inherited her position from her late husband, Kay finds herself continually marginalised, lectured and talked down to by her male employees – and, she’s all too aware that publishing the banned documents could land her and Bradlee in jail and finish off the newspaper once and for all…

The Post is a compelling piece of docudrama, helmed by a director at the peak of his powers – it’s sobering to note that Spielberg made this film largely because he had a few weeks to kill whilst waiting for the special effect shots in his upcoming Ready Player One to be processed. Given the quick turnaround, it’s astonishing that the film is as assured as it is. Furthermore, Spielberg has managed to pull in two of Hollywood’s major power players for his lead roles. Amazingly, Streep and Hanks have never made a film together until now.

What’s most fascinating here is to note how the publishing process has changed over the decades. Spielberg’s cameras linger almost voyeuristically over the process as the ‘hot metal’ printing presses are tortuously put together – and I love the scene where reporter Bob Bagdikien (Bob Odenkirk) attempts to make a covert call from a street pay phone, his nickels and dimes raining onto the pavement as he talks. Hanks is great as the news-hungry Bradlee and Streep gives an object lesson in understatement as Graham. The scene where she finally tells the men in suits what they can do is priceless. Make no mistake, this is also a feminist film in the truest sense of the word.

Having said all this, I don’t see The Post bothering Oscar too much this year – there are simply more exciting offerings to choose from. But – in its quiet, unassuming way – this is an important release that has plenty to say about the way government’s operate and how important it is to preserve the right to bring their actions to the public’s attention. Sadly, these are qualities that we are in danger of losing altogether. The events in this film eventually led to the impeachment of a President. What would it take, I wonder, to achieve a similar outcome now?

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Miss Saigon

19/01/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The story of Madame Butterfly first saw the light of day as a short story in 1898 and in 1904 became a celebrated opera by Puccini.

In their version of the tale, Boublil and Schonberg – creators of Les Miserables –  update the action to Saigon (as it was then called) in 1975, as American involvement in the Vietnamese war heads into a devastating tailspin. The result is Miss Saigon: an epic theatrical event, brilliantly staged, superbly performed and totally enthralling.

Kim (Sooha Kim) is a naive country girl on the run from an arranged marriage to Thuy (Gerald Santos), a man she does not love. Kim is quickly seized upon by ‘The Engineer’ (Red Concepcion), a cunning wheeler-dealer, currently earning his daily noodles by showing the visiting American troops a good time. Sex, drugs, whatever they want: he can provide it – for the right price. He is quick to realise Kim’s innocence could make him a lot of money. But when he teams her up with handsome young soldier Chris (Ashley Gilmour), something approaching true love blossoms between them. In the heat of the moment, they go through a traditional Vietnamese wedding ceremony. But then some devastating news comes through: the Americans are pulling out of the war and heading home. Chris is subsequently forced to leave the country without his new wife.

Okay, so it’s not the most original story in the world – there have been plenty of films and plays over the years that have trodden a similar path. What makes this work so effective is its epic sense of scale. There are thirty-eight actors working the stage in this production and they all give it everything they’ve got. The leads offer dazzling vocal performances – Kim and Gilmour are particularly strong, while Concepcion offers a mesmerising characterisation as a born survivor doing what he does best (his ‘American Dream’ set piece is a particular standout). The music, set design, costumes and movement are all of the highest standard and the show is as slick as quicksilver on a hot plate.

I must also single out one stunning coup de theatre, the final flight from the American Embassy, where the designers have somehow contrived to create a full scale helicopter hovering above the crowds gathered at the gates, a scene I watch in open-mouthed amazement. It shouldn’t be possible on a stage but it’s utterly convincing, a thrilling, eye-popping delight.

As for the story’s conclusion, I’m sure it can’t be construed as a spoiler if I warn you to take some paper hankies along with you. This is heartbreaking stuff and it’s a staunch soul indeed who will leave the Festival Theatre unmoved by what they’ve just seen. Many of the big blockbuster musicals fail to grip me, but Miss Saigon is a notable exception. I am riveted from start to finish.

Take my advice. Grab some tickets and buckle in for a wild ride. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Coco

14/01/18

Pixar Animation Studios can generally be counted on to provide quality entertainment but it’s been a little while since they truly knocked something out of the park. Here’s a film that puts them right back where they belong. In a move that seems destined to send this film plummeting to the bottom of President Trump’s ‘to watch’ list, Coco is a celebration of Mexico and its culture. It’s a dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to the country and, for once, the makers have got it absolutely right, employing Mexican talent in just about every area of this charming production.

Young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) longs to be a mariachi, just like his hero, the late (and locally born) Mexican screen star, Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But there’s a problem. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was married to a musician who abandoned her and her baby daughter – the eponymous Coco – for the lure of fame and fortune, so now, generations later, music is a taboo subject around the home. Instead, everyone is involved in the family shoe-making business, where Miguel is expected to one day take his place.

As the story starts, it’s fast approaching November 1st, when families across Mexico celebrate El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where everyone congregates in the local cemetery to enjoy a feast along with their departed relatives. When Miguel hears that there is to be a talent contest in the town square, he is determined to enter it, but for that he needs a guitar – his own, home made effort has been smashed to pieces by his over protective grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach). So Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz’s tomb, intending to borrow the late star’s famous guitar. In doing so, he inadvertently manages to slip between worlds and finds himself stranded in a land populated entirely by the dead – and it’s here that he meets Hector (Gail Garcia Bernal), a guitar-playing skeleton who is desperately trying to get back to his own loved ones on the other side…

Coco is such a ravishing feast for the senses, it’s hard to know where to begin with the superlatives. It looks absolutely astonishing in just about every frame, the music is terrific and the story is funny and inventive. Perhaps most importantly, it perpetuates that great Pixar tradition where it can be enjoyed as much by the parents as their offspring. Interestingly, the film has a PG certificate – after all it does deal predominantly with the afterlife – but it would be a sensitive child indeed who’d feel threatened by its lively cast of skeletons and colourful alebrijes (the spirit animals who look after the dead). The title Coco, by the way, refers to Miguel’s ailing great-grandmother, and the way she has been characterised probably deserves some kind of an award all by itself. This is animation at its most accomplished.

Ultimately though, how refreshing to see a depiction of Mexico that isn’t peopled by drug-dealing gangs, intent on torture and murder, but by loving families, who realise only too well that people only truly die when they are forgotten by the living. Perhaps this should be required viewing for all those Americans who believe the best way to deal with Mexico is to wall it off.

But I’m being way too political. Coco is perhaps best enjoyed as a slice of pure entertainment. This advance screening is surprisingly empty, but maybe the word just hasn’t got around yet. The news that is has already outgrossed the earnings of all twelve previous Pixar releases in China alone would suggest that the Disney empire is on target for yet another massive hit – and, in this case, it’s one that’s totally deserved.

Don’t you dare miss this. And don’t go thinking that if you haven’t got kids in tow, you can’t go along and enjoy it. Trust me, you’ll love it, whatever age you happen to be.

5 stars

Philip Caveney