Month: February 2018

Dark River

24/2/18

There’s a lot to admire about Dark River, not least its cast list, with Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley and Sean Bean all demonstrating exactly why they’re such acclaimed actors. They deserve our respect. Because this bleak and brutal tale depends entirely on their ability to create empathetic characters, to convey their muted misery with nuance and subtlety. Perhaps inevitably, the film has drawn comparisons with God’s Own Country, with which it shares the stark landscape of rural Yorkshire, but – beyond the superficial, they have little in common: Francis Lee’s debut is essentially a love story, while this Clio Barnard film is a harrowing family drama.

We first meet Alice (Wilson) earning her crust as a migrant farm hand, seemingly happy in her work despite its rigours. She’s confident and competent, well-liked by her colleagues. ‘There’s always work for you here,’ her boss assures her, but she’s leaving anyway. Her father has died; she’s going home to the family farm – the one he promised would be hers one day. But of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Home is a complicated place, and Dad (a virtually silent Sean Bean) is still a looming presence, despite his recent demise. What’s more, Joe (Stanley), Alice’s brother, has other ideas. He’s been working this land for most of his life, and believes he has the greater claim on it, despite the fact that he’s let the place go to rack and ruin and spends much of his time  drinking away his dissatisfaction.

And besides, it’s almost a moot point. They don’t even own the farm; they’re just tenants. The best either of them can hope for is to be granted the tenancy, which seems unlikely as property developers are already sniffing around, sensing an opportunity to make some money.

The half-buried secrets and unspoken resentments eventually boil over into violent confrontation. Ultimately though, the story feels too slight (and perhaps a little too over- familiar) to entirely convince, and the shot of redemption we are offered at its conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory. As I said before, there’s plenty to admire here, but perhaps, not an awful lot to enjoy. One thing’s for sure. This isn’t going to figure highly on a list of feature films recommended by the Yorkshire tourist board.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

Black Panther

24/02/18

For those viewers who, like me, are suffering from a bad case of spandex overload, help is at hand in the form of a Marvel superhero movie that doesn’t really feel like anything that’s gone before it. You thought Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope? Wait till you get a load of Black Panther!

In what is only his third film, director Ryan Coogler offers a powerful and confident take on the genre, an action film that gets so many things right it’s hard to resist its considerable charms. And I’m not just referring to the fact that the film is almost completely inhabited by black characters – that it’s a celebration of Africa and its culture – that there are so many strong, positive roles for women. This is an object lesson on how to reinvent and subvert a tired and over-familiar concept.

We first meet the hero of the film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), just after the death of his father, as he is about to become the King of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that, after a meteor strike back in its history, has blossomed into a technologically advanced wonderland, thanks to an abundance of vibranium, the precious metal that gives Wakanda’s leaders their superpowers and allows them to transform into the titular hero. But no sooner is T’Challa on the throne than he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mission. His old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, revelling in the chance to strut his stuff, for once, without having to wear a motion capture suit), has stolen an ancient artefact made from vibranium and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder. He is aided in the robbery by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has some personal axe to grind with T’Challa…

There’s some fabulous world-building going on here and I particularly love the performance of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, who plays a sort of Q figure, providing her big bother with a whole string of incredible hardware to enable him to complete his mission. A lengthy sequence in a Korean casino followed by a frenetic car chase could have wandered in from a Bond movie and, if the makers of that franchise are ever stuck for a director, Coogler would make an interesting choice  – but I digress.

The film soon ventures into more familiar superhero territory, but even the usual CGI-augmented punchup at the conclusion doesn’t go on interminably – a problem that mars the otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok – and better still, this one has rhinos! Best of all for me, Marvel finally has a more interesting and nuanced villain than the usual ‘bent-on-world-domination’ cliche that is habitually trotted out. Fans of the Marvel EU will want to stay in their seats through the (very long) end credits because there are two extra scenes on offer, one of which ties up a loose end from an earlier film.

Purists will inevitably complain that Black Panther doesn’t stick closely enough to the established conventions of the genre but, for me at least, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

22/02/18

Once again, NT Live offers us the chance to see a noteworthy production we’d otherwise be consigned to reading about. For David Lan, who has stepped down from his role as the Young Vic’s artistic director, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a triumphant swan song, elegantly directed by Benedict Andrews, and beautifully performed.

The audacious casting certainly pays off. Sienna Miller’s Maggie is a standout, all bravado and desperation: strong but vulnerable; gorgeous but unloved. She really is like the titular cat, prowling the room, unsure how to function in a world where everything has changed. Brick refuses to acknowledge her, whatever she says, whatever she does. She talks incessantly, needling and provoking, removing her clothes, painting her face. Nothing works. She’s lost him. It’s a bravura performance, a faultless incarnation of a classic role.

Jack O’Connell also gives an impressive turn as Brick, the handsome football-star-turned-alcoholic, traumatised by his best friend, Skipper’s suicide, unable to accept his own homosexuality. Brick is a complex character, at once the most honest and the most duplicitous in the play. He refuses to indulge the ‘happy family’ façade, makes no secret of his drinking, doesn’t care who hears him rejecting his wife. But he lies to himself about his feelings for Skipper, even when Big Daddy offers him absolution; his own prejudices too ingrained to allow him to face the truth. O’Connell imbues Brick with dignity, despite his obvious descent; it’s a clever, nuanced portrayal of a truly tortured soul.

Colm Meany is suitably awful as the tyrannical Big Daddy, a Trump-like figure whose only redeeming feature is his willingness to accept his favourite son’s sexuality. But it’s Lisa Palfrey as Big Momma who really intrigues me: she plays the matriarch as an infantalised neurotic, who has to be protected from realities she can’t stand. Big Daddy openly despises her, calls her fat and stupid; she responds in a high-pitched, lilting, little-girl voice, her ‘He doesn’t mean it’ lines imbued with the rhythm of a fingers-in-the-ear-la-la-la denial. It’s a very different interpretation of the character from any I’ve seen before, but it absolutely works.

There’s not much to criticise here, although I do think more could be done to create the sense of sweltering heat and claustrophobia inside the house. It’s all there in the dialogue, but I never really feel it. The modern setting means there are none of the traditional plantation shutters and whirring fans, and that’s okay – I like the set – but I think I’d like the ice to melt, to know that the water in the shower is cold, to understand why Maggie is wearing tights when it’s so hot. Still, these are mere quibbles.

If you haven’t seen this yet, there’s sure to be an encore screening soon. I urge you to catch it.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Belle’s Stratagem

21/02/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The chances are you may not have heard of playwright and poet, Hannah Cowley. I certainly hadn’t until I read the programme for the Lyceum’s latest offering. Back in the 1700s, however, her work was in great demand and, in 1780, her biggest success, The Belle’s Stratagem (a witty repost to George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem), was selling out the 2000 seater Drury Lane Theatre in London. Over the ensuing centuries, her name has passed into obscurity, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her work brought once more to the public attention in this sprightly adaptation, written and directed by Tony Cownie. The action has been relocated to Edinburgh, where the New Town is taking shape, and where the villainous Deacon Brodie is gleefully helping himself to the belongings of its inhabitants.

The belle of the title is Letitia (Angela Hardie), who is betrothed to the wealthy and handsome Doricourt (Angus Miller), much to the delight of her father, Provost Hardy (Steven McNicholl), who welcomes the financial advancement this will bring. But though Letitia is head-over-heels in love with Doricourt, he seems quite indifferent to her charms, so she devises a devious stratagem that will make him fully appreciate her qualities. The first step, however, is to make him despise her…

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a single-strand narrative. There are subplots aplenty, not least the story of Sir George Touchwood (Grant O’ Rourke), who has been deliberately keeping his naive wife, Lady Frances (Helen Mackay), away from the distractions of high society. There’s the newspaperman, Flutter (John Ramage), an unabashed gossip-monger, who loves nothing more than writing about the outrageous events of the well-to-do and who has no compunction in inventing much of his juicier material, and there’s Mrs Racket (Pauline Knowles), who is adept at arranging and organising the running of everyone’s lives from behind the scenes.

Cownie handles his material with a deft touch, consistently bringing his audience to gales of laughter as the various blunders, pratfalls and witty one-liners are unleashed. The production looks ravishing too, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Though many of the cast double up on their roles, there’s never any doubt about who is who at any given time and, as the events hurtle towards the delicious possibilities of a masked ball, the stage seems to virtually pulsate with energy. Fast, furious and frenetic, this is a real crowdpleaser. It’s also strangely prescient, as the women in the story refuse to conform to the conventions they’re constrained by, and forge their own paths towards happiness and fulfilment.

Don’t miss this – its a riotous and gleeful experience that will send you on your way with a great big smile on your face.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Weir

20/02/18

Conor McPherson’s much-acclaimed play premiered at the tiny upstairs theatre of the Royal Court in 1997 and was something of an overnight sensation. Over twenty years later, it’s still going strong. This touring production from Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has much to recommend it, but, in the spacious environs of the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, it inevitably loses some of its intimacy. Predicated upon the Irish love of storytelling, it’s the tale of four men living in the wilds of County Leitrim – and a lone woman, who is invited into their most sacred stronghold, the titular local bar.

Jack (Sean Murray) is a garage owner, a cantankerous old batchelor with a fondness for Guinness and Silk Cut. Jim (John O’ Dowd) is his regular mechanic. Young Brendan (Sam O’ Mahoney) is the landlord of The Weir, which is replicated in every grimy detail and will be totally familiar to anyone who has ever experienced such establishments in rural Ireland. Finbar (Louis Dempsey) is a successful businessman and what passes for a big shot in these parts. He brings along Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) to introduce her to his friends. She is a ‘blow-in’, recently moved down from Dublin. The other men are convinced that Finbar, a married man, regards the new arrival as a potential romantic conquest, but that’s mostly conjecture on their part – and, as it turns out, she has other matters on her mind…

The scene is set for a series of unsettling ghost stories, recounted by each of the customers in turn. These are subtle affairs, brief inexplicable encounters, the kind of incidents discussed by drinkers the world over and ones that hint at the powerful pagan beliefs that still lurk behind the facade of modern sensibility. There are excellent performances from all five cast members and the characterisations seemed to me to be absolutely bang on. Sadly, however, it’s during these stories that I am most aware of the physical distance between the actors and large parts of the audience. I find myself holding my breath in an attempt to capture every word and, given that all the characters except Valerie deliver their lines in a broad Irish brogue, it isn’t always easy to be sure you’ve heard everything.

What’s the answer? A little more poke on the microphones, perhaps? And a little less of that eerie background music as each story approaches its conclusion? Hard to say. For sure, I want to be right up close to the actors, to feel that I am sitting in that bar alongside them, sharing the drink and the conversation.

Still, if a larger venue means the play is seen by a wider audience, then that’s no bad thing – and it may just be a worthwhile trade-off.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

 

I, Tonya

18/02/18

Just when you think  the Oscar race can’t get any tighter, in swaggers I, Tonya, straight out of left field and hits you with a hefty sucker punch, right in the kisser. This noisy, brazen biopic is wonderfully enervating and it’s clear that its claim to be ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’  isn’t so very wide of the mark. Indeed, the constant jumping from time-frame to time-frame, the fake interviews, the occasional deadpan remarks delivered straight to camera and, above all else, the wonderful classic rock soundtrack – all serve to remind you of Martin Scorcese’s finest movie. But it’s much more than just a pale imitation of that film. There’s so much to admire here, not least Margot Robbie’s incendiary performance in the title role.

Tonya Harding, it seems, had a fight on her hands from her earliest days. Knocked around by her hard-as-nails, chain-smoking momma, LaVona (Alison Janney, in brilliant Oscar-baiting form), beaten up by her ne’er-do-well husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), she manages to battle through, performing manoeuvres on the rink that no other skater has ever dared to try –  but her ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ persona doesn’t stand her in good stead with the judges, who like to see a little more deportment doled out alongside the leaps, twirls and pirouettes.

Of course, we all know why she came to wider attention – through the notoriety of a vicious attack on her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), which left her hospitalised just as they were both preparing to skate in the Olympics. Despite being only tangentially involved in the incident – it was originally devised as a series of poison pen letters by Jeff and then pumped up out of all proportion by Tonya’s so-called ‘bodyguard,’ Shawn – Tonya ends up paying the highest price when Shawn decides to go a bit further with the plan and enlists the aid of some very dodgy people indeed. What follows is so bizarre, it can only be a true story…

Director Craig Gillespie handles the material with an edgy, almost experimental approach, throwing in slow-mo and jump cuts with glee – and the mesmerising skating sequences are so cleverly staged, you literally cannot see the joins. That appears to be Robbie on the screen, skating up a storm, but it can’t really be, can it? Like many other recent biopics, there’s a final sequence of interviews showing the real life protagonists, just so you can fully appreciate how close these characterisations keep to the originals, which is particularly surprising in the case of Paul Walter Hauser’s hilariously off-the-wall performance as the cartoonish Shawn. It’s an eye-opener.

Go and see this riotous, hard-hitting and occasionally hilarious film and enjoy what must qualify as one of the strangest sporting stories in recent history. And as for that rock soundtrack, if you can manage to sit in your seat without twitching and foot-tapping along in accompaniment, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

4.9 stars

Philip Caveney

Lady Bird

16/02/18

Greta Gerwig is a fascinating woman. After seemingly stumbling into the film business via a series of zero budget, mumblecore efforts, she has quickly demonstrated that she is a force to be reckoned with. The semi-autobiographical Frances Ha, written by Gerwig and directed by Noah Baumbach, plays like early Woody Allen and Lady Bird feels very much like a prequel to that film, with Saoirse Ronan stepping up to the plate to play a teenage version of Gerwig. From the opening sequence where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson argues with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in a moving car – and then throws herself out of it rather than continue the conversation – we are left in no doubt that this is the story of a troublesome teen, who is likely to get her own way in the end.

Christine lives in Sacramento but longs to go to college in New York, where she believes ‘culture lives’. But it isn’t as easy as that. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), recently lost his job, her adopted step brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), seems in no hurry to get one ,and its pretty much left to Marion, a psychiatric nurse, to bring home the bacon. Little wonder the thought of paying for a place at an Ivy League University doesn’t figure highly on her agenda. She and Christine have a troubled relationship and it’s this, more than anything else, that lies at the heart of this powerful and beguiling film, which Gerwig has chosen to direct herself. Typically, she handles it with great aplomb, somehow managing to make the running time fly past and coaxing wonderful performances from everyone involved, especially from Ronan and Metcalf, who make a winning combination.

The story is often very funny (a scene where the a drama group is run by a physical exercise coach is a particular stand out), but it’s powerful enough to occasionally tug at the heartstrings too. I particularly like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s best friend, Julie, and there’s also a nice cameo from Timothee Chalomet as one of Christine’s patently unsuitable boyfriends. Oscar nominations have been announced and, who knows, in the present climate, the establishment might finally be ready to reward another female director, and Lady Bird could well be a surprise winner.

Whatever the outcome, this is a sublime piece of film-making that never puts a foot wrong and demonstrates only too clearly that Greta Gerwig is a talent to be reckoned with.

5 stars

Philip Caveney