Month: February 2018

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

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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

Pressure

13/01/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The most momentous affairs of mankind can be influenced by the most unexpected elements. Take the weather, for instance. The British are seemingly obsessed with it and we all complain when the weathermen get it wrong – but some forecasts are way more important than others. Pressure tells the story of one of the many unheralded heroes of World War Two. It’s 1944 and Group Captain James Stagg (David Haig) is the meteorologist charged with the onerous task of predicting the conditions for D Day. He approaches the job weighed down by the certain knowledge that, if he gets it wrong, he could inadvertently cause the death of thousands of young allied troops.

This play, written by Haig and directed by John Dove, gives a fascinating insight into a little known historical incident. Stagg is presented as a gloomy and uncommunicative Scot, always reluctant to give a definitive answer (like most weathermen, I suppose) and simultaneously going through some personal pressures of his own. He lives in a world of isobars and barometer readings and has to answer directly to General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair), who has 350,000 men standing by, waiting for the order to invade France. Luckily, Stagg also has Ike’s level-headed secretary Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers) on hand to guide him through the challenge of coming to the right decision and to help him argue against Ike’s own personal weatherman, who has a much more gung-ho approach to his work,

It’s to the play’s immense credit that all the talk about weather fronts and the constant unfurling of isometric maps never becomes boring – indeed the dialogue here often crackles with suspense and, as the time ticks steadily away towards D Day, we fully appreciate the enormity of Stagg’s ultimate decision, even though of course, history tells us that everything turned out all right in the end.

This is an absorbing story, cleverly told, and nicely acted by an ensemble cast – it’s well worth your time and money.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Rushmore

12/01/18

Wes Anderson is one of contemporary cinema’s most original talents. Although his subjects are diffuse and far-ranging, his movies are always shot through with an idiosyncratic sensibility that marks him out as a true auteur. With his new release, Isle of Dogs, looming on the horizon, this is clearly a great time for a retrospective of his work and Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema have seized the moment by devoting Monday evenings to showings of all his full length films in chronological order. It also gives me the welcome opportunity to see the one Anderson film that has thus far eluded me.

After the incendiary calling card of Bottle Rocket, 1998’s Rushmore is the film that cemented Anderson’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with but, for a whole variety of reasons, I have never managed to catch up with it until now. It’s the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) a fifteen-year-old student at the titular preparatory school who has an obsessive genius for organising clubs and societies, even if this means that his actual school work consistently falls short of its potential. He also writes and directs hilariously over-ambitious school plays – his adaptation of Serpico needs to be seen to be believed.

Max chances upon what he feels is a kindred spirit in Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a dispirited businessman who, despite considerable wealth, has become disillusioned with his loveless marriage and the antics of his two oafish sons. He is quite happy to fund some of Max’s madcap enterprises. Max’s acquisitive eye also falls on a new teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), whom he starts to pursue in reckless fashion, even attempting, as a declaration of his love for her, to build a massive aquarium on the school sports field, without even bothering to seek permission. When Rosemary and Herman start an affair, Max is devastated – and takes out his anger in ways that will have disastrous consequences for his future…

Rushmore is an unqualified delight from start to finish and Schwartzman’s performance in the lead role is an extraordinary tour de force. Max is an inspired creation, a charming maverick who, despite a surfeit of confidence, still has an appealing vulnerability. Bill Murray puts in a sanguine and understated effort as the jaded businessman and, as the film progresses, I find myself wondering why we haven’t seen a lot more of Olivia Williams on the big screen, because she offers a beguiling presence as Rosemary.

For me this is up there with Anderson’s finest work (and that’s praise indeed). The completist side of me is very happy to have finally had the chance to tick this off my ‘to see’ agenda. Any other Anderson fans who fancy catching up (or reconnecting) with his work on the big screen should keep their eyes peeled for subsequent showings. Even his slighter efforts are never less than interesting.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Ivy on the Square

11/02/18

St Andrew Square, Edinburgh

Let’s be honest, we’re here because of The Ivy, the famous London restaurant none of our party has ever visited, but which is synonymous with celebrity and exclusivity. Not that we’re expecting either of these tonight, but we’re keen to see what this Scottish outpost has to offer, and perhaps to gain some insight into why its progenitor is so talked about.

We’re with good friends, so we’re off to a promising start: we’re predisposed to enjoy ourselves when we’re in their company. True, we’ve looked at the menu on line and found it pretty uninspiring, and our companions have read some mixed reviews. But we’re here with open minds (and mouths); we’ll give it a fair chance.

And we’re glad we do, because it’s hard to find much fault. The decor is idiosyncratic, all busy prints and reflective surfaces, but it works: it’s modern and traditional and quirky all at once. Okay, so the tables are crammed a little closely together, and it’s busy and bustling so they’re a little slow with our drinks orders, but that’s no problem really; there’s a lively atmosphere and we’re in no rush. The service is attentive without being overbearing, and the food is really rather good.

I start with the tuna carpaccio, which is yellowfin tuna served with ponzu dressing, avocado purée, toasted sesame and coriander shoots. It’s a thing of beauty, and the standout of the meal for me. It’s spicy but delicate, and the fish is melt-in-the-mouth soft. Lovely! Philip has the warm crispy duck salad, which comes with five spice dressing, toasted cashews, watermelon, beansprouts, coriander and ginger. He’s especially impressed by the textures, and by the surprising addition of the watermelon, and declares it a winning way to begin.

His main is line-caught swordfish with red pepper sauce, Provencal black olives, fregola and chimichurri dressing. It’s a simple dish, but a well-executed one, the fish seared to perfection. I opt for the ‘classic’ Ivy on the Square shepherd’s pie, which comprises slow-braised lamb shoulder with beef and Isle of Mull Cheddar potato mash. It’s not like any shepherd’s pie I’ve had before, its elevation completed by the robust gravy that accompanies it, which is rich and densely flavoured.

Do we have  room for pudding? Of course we do. And, having seen it delivered to a neighbouring table, we both opt for the chocolate bombe,  a delicious dome of milk chocolate, which – under a torrent of hot butterscotch sauce – melts into a vanilla ice cream and honeycomb centre. It’s as theatrical as it is sinfully delicious, and we’re suitably impressed.

All in all, we’ve had a great evening, relaxed and unhurried, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Will we be back? I’d say it’s highly likely.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield

The Cloverfield Paradox

08/01/18

J J Abram’s Cloverfield franchise has always wielded an element of surprise as part of its arsenal. The first film, a compelling ‘found-footage’ creature feature, directed by Matt Reeves, was sneak-released to cinemas in 2008, and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a low budget masterpiece.  Its 2016 successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense, claustrophobic thriller that initially appeared to have nothing whatever in common with its predecessor; until, that is, you reached the film’s final third and everything went completely (and satisfyingly) berserk.

And now, here’s The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah and somehow released direct to Netflix with hardly anyone (including the cast!) aware that this was going to happen. As a means of grabbing attention, it works a treat – but there have already been many voices on social media branding the new release as a complete dud – and news that a fourth instalment, with a Second World War setting, is already in the can have led many to believe that Abrams has, quite literally, lost the plot.

The opening of Paradox certainly grabs the attention, playing like a lost episode of Black Mirror. It’s the year 2028, the earth’s energy supplies are rapidly dwindling and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) is poised to leave her partner, Kiel (David Oyelowo) to go on a mission into outer space. She and the rest of her crew intend to use ‘The Shepard’ – a particle accelerator – to provide the earth with an artificial power supply – but they are warned from the very beginning that in so doing, they risk inadvertently opening portals that will allow alternative realities into existence. Well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

The story now leaps forward to the mission itself, where Ava and her companions are trying to initiate the ‘Shepard.’ At first, they appear to have been successful – but then some very strange things start to happen… for a start, they can’t seem to find any trace of the earth. Then, they find a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped behind the walls of the spacecraft. She claims to be a trusted member of the crew, but they have never set eyes on her before. Meanwhile, engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie) starts having some very nasty digestive problems and as for Mundy (Chris O’ Dowd)… what exactly has happened to his left arm? Meanwhile, back on earth, Kiel is having some pretty intense problems of his own…

And that’s pretty much it. The film cuts back and forth between its two locations throughout. It’s nicely shot and for the most part, it galumphs along engagingly enough, even though it soon becomes apparent that this is not so much a Cloverfield film as something else that has been slyly retrofitted to slot into that cinematic universe. Indeed, apart from a couple of subtle visual references, you’ll have to wait until the film’s closing moments to make any real connection with those illustrious predecessors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where film fans are more polarised than ever before, some viewers have excoriated Paradox, blasting levels of vitriol in its general direction that seem somewhat excessive. It really isn’t that bad – just a bit mediocre and nowhere near as good as its progenitors. And of course, the convenient thing about Netflix is, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can always reach for the ‘off’ switch.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney